‘The Maid’s Version’ is a Depression-era mystery

Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionDecember 14, 2013 

  • Fiction

    The Maid’s Version

    Daniel Woodrell

    Little, Brown and Company, 176 pages

In his first novel in seven years, Daniel Woodrell, author of the acclaimed “Winter’s Bone” (2006) and “The Outlaw Album (2011),” returns to his beloved Ozarks with a ghostly tale about a mysterious explosion at a rural Missouri dance hall in 1929 that left more than 40 people dead.

“The Maid’s Version,” based on a true story from the author’s family history, broadens his scope with an intimate look at the interwoven, ever-changing fortunes of the well-heeled and the sorely underprivileged of fictional West Table, Mo.

The maid of the title, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, lost her younger sister in the disaster, long suspected to have been no accident. After hiding her suspicions for decades to avoid repercussions, Alma gets the opportunity to finally unburden herself when her 12-year-old grandson, Alek, is sent to spend the summer with her in 1965.

The two hit it off when Alma decides to share her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion – a gruesome spectacle in which “forty-two dancers perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered mid-step, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames.”

As the title suggests, hers is not the only version of events.

The book teems with life, an entire community and its history packed into the space of what amounts, at 165 pages, to a novella. Woodrell’s lyric prose, marrying the Old Testament to courtly Elizabethan syntax and backwoods brogue, gives voice to everyone from the sympathetic Russian gardener to the reformed gang member who owns the garage beneath the dance hall.

In the end, no clear answer to the mystery emerges, but we don’t need one. In the morally complex universe of “The Maid’s Version,” forgiveness and redemption lie not in punishing the guilty but in bringing all the facts to light, thereby restoring the humanity of a community once devastated by losses greater than it could bear.

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