Publication date: September 3rd 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Daniel Woodrell’s last novel, Winter’s Bonewas a contemporary look at a teen’s desperate struggle to save what is left of her family when her drug dealing father skips out on bail. In his latest, The Maid’s Version, he returns to the Ozarks but in 1929. He writes of Alma Dunahew, a woman whose mind is so filled with the injuries, insults, and injustices of the past that it has no room for anything else. Taken out of school and put into service when she is only ten years old, she reaches adulthood never knowing anything other than the kind of poverty that leads one to steal table scraps from an employer to feed their hungry children. If nothing is left but half-eaten pieces of black walnut pie then that is dinner. When her employer takes notice of her flirtatious and curvy younger sister Ruby, she aids in their affair for extra money until events transpire that make Ruby lose interest in her beau. Shortly thereafter, the town suffers it greatest tragedy—a massive fire at the local dance hall that kills forty-two, including Ruby.
How the explosion happened is the frayed mystery that winds through The Maid’s Version. Everyone has pieces and bits of it but no conclusion is ever reached despite a town council appointed to find the perpetrator. But Alma knows. Alma is so certain she talks of it and rails against it and rages herself out of a job and into a state home where she is sent to recover. By this time, of her three sons, one is dead, one has disappeared, and one will be taken in by a kindly older couple who come to mean more to him than his real parents ever did. His son spends the summer with Alma long after her release and it is his presence that acts as the key to unlock the past. Like a rusty old well the spigot that is Alma begins to pour out the past regarding the dance hall fire that killed her sister. The sister she loved so much but knew so little.
Interspersed with Alma and her family’s story are vignettes of some of the others who perished in the fire at the dance hall. While only a chapter each, they give a brief poignant look into lives that may not have been extraordinary for any reason other than being cut so short. Through these memories and those of the town folk the pieces come together to form a quilt that portrays the strength and weakness of human nature and familial love. In The Maid’s Version, Woodrell’s style is so attuned to the poverty and despair of the town and its citizens that the prose is spare and lean, the punctuation minimal. And like these characters, living through the Depression, the reader finds themselves hoarding each word, savoring each sentence, not going too fast because then it will be gone.