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Book Review: The Maid’s Version

By (October 13, 2013) No Comment

The Maid’s Versionthe maid's version cover

Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown & Company, 2013


Rooting deep for grim truths and grimy evocations, the slim new novel by Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, 2006) finds a vein of Southern noir perhaps best tapped in small doses. Building The Maid’s Version around a true incident that occurred on April 23, 1928, in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell begins lightly, with a sinister press at the small of our back:

She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She’d sit on the edge of the bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light flowing in through both windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn’t walk when her hair wasn’t woven into dense braids and penned around and atop her head.

So begins a summer odyssey in 1965, when twelve-year-old Alek Dunahew stays with his grandmother, Alma DeGreer Dunahew, and learns the truth about the 1929 Arbor Dance Hall explosion, which killed the forty-two West Table citizens trapped inside. One of these people was Alma’s sister, Ruby.

Ruby was everything Alma wasn’t–beautiful, outspoken, and generously attentive to men who bought her expensive gifts. One of these patrons (whom Ruby later confided to her sister as being the only man she ever loved) was the wealthy banker Arthur Glencross. He himself was quite generous, coming to employ most of the Dunahew family; Alma began working as Mrs. Glencross’s maid, Alma’s husband Buster chauffeured Arthur on nights spent with Ruby, and their son John Paul caddied while the banker golfed.

West Plains’ actual dance hall explosion created a wound slow to heal, so long as someone lived to talk about it. Reflecting this reality in West Table, Alma’s desperate need for closure–to tell the entire story and lay proper blame–estranged her from John Paul. But Alek, removed one generation from the tragedy, is someone willing to listen. Her tale becomes their shared inheritance.

Set in a small southern town, The Maid’s Version has plenty of characters ready to play the villain: an overzealous preacher, two gangsters harboring the secret of another citizen’s identity, and a grudge-holding clan of gypsies. Then again, the common villainy of love gone wrong is likely responsible. Woodrell nevertheless delights in smearing his characters across the landscape. As Preacher Willard would have us believe,

There were so many acts or thoughts or mere thoughts of acts that could plant rot in a person and choke the flow of the blessed spirit until the soul became wizened and shrunken and fell away from the body, useless as a dry booger, and a soulless body was but a hospitable husk soon become filled by a demon. The soul of the damned was now a dry booger on the ground somewhere and the newly resident demon shielded behind the face of the husk laughed and laughed, threw stones at the stained-glass windows, made babies sick, mothers die, pestilence abound.

Though slight in size, The Maid’s Version places the rural lives and feelings they conjure in a fishbowl, magnifying them. And like Flannery O’Conner (Wise Blood) and Tom Franklin (Poachers), Woodrell presses our face to the glass, mesmerizing us with battles for the simplest prize of all: survival.

Or, as Alma would say, “Kin of any sort means a little something in the Ozarks.”