The Maid’s Version

  • Daniel Woodrell
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 176 pp.

After a mysterious fire leaves 42 people dead, one woman's suspicions, memories and need for vengeance consume her life.

In 1929, in the fictional town of West Table, Mo., the Arbor Dance Hall exploded in a column of fire that left 42 party-goers dead and a mystery in its wake. Alma DeGreer, sister to one of the dead and housekeeper to one of West Table’s most prominent families, is certain she knows who is responsible. Over the meandering course of Daniel Woodrell’s slender novel, Alma’s grandson reveals her collection of observations and suspicions and reminds us of the destructive, addictive way that tragedy eats at a society.

Alma is a tough-as-nails maid who tries her best to live an upright life in a world full of compromises. But little seems to go her way. We first meet Alma in her old age, when “her hair was as long as her story and she couldn’t walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids.” It is the burden of that story, not her long tresses, that has snared her since the dance hall explosion, making her nearly a pariah in her hometown. Still, Alma persists in her convictions, the strength of which carries this unusual and haunting novel.

The novel presents us with a collection of suspects: the mobster-turned-family man who ran the garage beneath the second-story dance hall; the fire-breathing preacher who vowed to blow the sinful town to kingdom come; even the entire local Gypsy troop, which was locked in prison the night of the explosion. Rather than tell the story chronologically, the author gives readers a series of vignettes and character studies set during the years before the explosion to 60 years afterward, as well as points in between. We meet Alma’s beautiful and charming younger sister, Ruby DeGreer, who sashayed from love affair to love affair until she died in the dance hall. Ruby “didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked to shatter them coolly, with no ugly scenes.”

When Ruby gets involved with Alma’s employer, Arthur Glencross, we sense impending trouble. Ruby is too cavalier and Glencross is too smitten and powerful. Of course, Woodrell is too talented an author to leave either character at such a stereotypical baseline. Over the course of the novel he exposes their generosities and weaknesses, building an unforgettable not-quite love story.

Meanwhile, the mystery of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion unfolds, slowly and sometimes confusingly: we learn the fate of one key character before encountering the scene that shows his death. It can make for puzzling reading. But I suspect Woodrell is telling us something. The truth, as this one woman knows it, is both clear and complicated. How does Alma know the pillow talk between her sister and her employer? Why is she so convinced of her assertions? Late in life, Alma becomes “less anchored to the day she was living and [she] twirled into and out of days gone by or days she’d imagined.” We are left wondering if any of those imagined days has made its way into her sleuthing and theories. And we learn those hypotheses from her grandson, who is one step further from the events he describes even while posing as an omniscient narrator. The novel’s title may give us a hint: this is a version of the truth. Beware ironclad conclusions.

Alma is not the only West Table resident obsessed with this tragedy. At least four people kill themselves above the filled-in pit of the disaster’s crater, and “there were the accusations and denunciations also delivered in clusters surrounding the anniversary date.” The victims’ families seem incapable of moving on, just like Alma, who does not move away from the town that rejects her and her accusations. Her grandson says that Alma, “with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us.” What are we, the narrator seems to suggest, without a guiding tragedy? Even if the accompanying need for revenge consumes us.

Fans of Woodrell’s previous novel, Winter’s Bone, may come away from The Maid’s Version a bit startled. This latest work lacks the cruel narrative drive of Winter’s Bone, a story about a daughter’s desperate search for her father, and delivers a much more subtle reward. The impact of The Maid’s Version comes more from contemplation and consideration than a moving final scene, but I urge readers to spend the time with this story. Woodrell’s finely tuned writing and layered narrative are more than sufficient recompense.

Carrie Callaghan is a member of the Editorial Board of the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, Silk Road, and elsewhere. She tweets @carriecallaghan.

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