Remember the teenage Jennifer Lawrence—pre-Katniss, pre-Hustle—who burst on to the scene in the grittier than gritty Winter’s Bone in 2010? That was thanks in large part to author Daniel Woodrell, who established himself as the voice of the hardscrabble South with the 2006 novel of the same name. Although it was not his first book, and Woodrell has long been admired in the crime fiction community, the public definitely took more notice of him after Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree Dolly earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film also earned nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for John Hawkes.
Woodrell has a superior ear for dialogue and rural argot, and his depiction of the underlying violence and tension in a community under stress is infinitely compelling. In person, Woodrell is a soft-spoken, articulate, erudite man—he has a MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop—whose style is poetic and dark in describing the area and people from the Bayou country of Louisiana to the Ozarks of Missouri. In his latest novel, The Maid’s Version, Woodrell takes us to the fictional small town of West Table, Missouri.
Alma DeGeer Dunahew is the housemaid of the title. Her story is relayed by her grandson, Alek, primarily based on what she told him in 1965, during a visit when he was 12 years old. Most of what she has to say revolves around West Table’s big disaster in 1929. The Arbor Dance Hall exploded one crowded night and killed 42 people, “waltzing couples murdered midstep.” The cause of the explosion was hotly debated at the time by West Table’s residents, but no arrests or conclusions were ever made public by the authorities.
The Maid’s Version is just that: Alma’s version of what happened that night in 1929, pieced together by a woman who, Alek says, would tell him “about a suspect person or deed, a vague or promising suspicion she’d acquired with her own sharp ears or general snooping.” It’s a personal tale of anguish and justice, too, because Alma’s sister, Ruby, was one of the victims.
Alma and her kin are described in flashbacks, some back to 1929, some long before that. There are no helpful notices about when such a switch is about to happen; it’s dependent on context. Although this aspect of reading Maid is challenging, the reward is the subtle unfolding of what Alma knows that brings us to the book’s stunning conclusion.
Woodrell brings to life Buster, Alma’s no-good husband; her son, John-Paul, father of Alek; Ruby, her’s wayward sister; and Arthur Glencross, Alma’s primary employer and Ruby’s lover. There are brief but rich portraits of others who perished in the explosion or whose tales finally intersect with the events Alma envisions leading up to the tragedy.
Therein lies the trick question: How reliable is Alma’s story? This is why her tale is told through Alek, even though he barely appears as a character himself. It would be harder to cast doubt on the re-creation of the events in 1929 if Woodrell used third-person narration. What more did Alma have to lose? She was born into poverty and never truly escaped it, certainly not mentally. She had a breakdown at one point. She lost her husband, two of her children, her sister, and her job with the Glencrosses. And yet why was it so important for her to know what happened that night at the Arbor Dance Hall?
Alma is a tough old bird when we first meet her, but, as Alek tells us, “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.” He says it took him time to learn to love her. As her story is slowly revealed, can we, too, learn to hold her close to our hearts?