The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell – a Book Review

Daniel Woodrell is a local Ozarks author who originally hails from my city of Springfield, Missouri. He writes predominantly crime fiction in the subgenre of country noir that is set in the Missouri Ozarks. You might be most familiar with the 2010 novel, Winter’s Bone, which was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, a movie that was filmed in Missouri. The Maid’s Version, so short it barely qualifies as a novel, is his 11th and was released in 2013.

Synopsis

The novel follows a young man named Alek as he narrates the stories told to him by his grandmother, Alma, a native of the town of West Table, Missouri. In 1929, an explosion at the Arbor dance hall claimed the lives of 42 people, including Alma’s younger sister, Ruby. The chain of events leading up to the explosion and those to come after shaped Alma’s entire life, and the novel unfolds her story piece by piece while also giving little glimpses into the lives of other town members, including some of those who perished in the dance hall tragedy. We also get the story of Alek’s father, the youngest of Alma’s three sons, as he battles poverty and homelessness as a young boy during the Great Depression.

History

This is an incredibly interesting novel for one main reason. In April 1928 in the town of West Plains, Missouri, there was an incredible tragedy, the cause of which still remains unknown to this day. A regular Friday night dance was being held at the Bond dance hall, which stood on the 2nd floor of a building also containing a storage garage for the Wiser Motor Co., which took up the first floor. On that Friday in April while the band played a final tune before the 11:00 pm intermission, something exploded in the Wiser garage, causing the few luckiest among them to be blown from the windows of the building, which is the reason anyone at all survived. The unlucky fell down into a blazing inferno to die an agonizing death. Witnesses say the screams and the cries for help of the burning dancers eventually subsided after about 5 minutes. It was a horrific catastrophe that claimed the lives of 40 young people, many of them West Plains residents or out of town visitors. A further 23 were injured. Among the dead was the owner of the Wiser Motor Co., J.W. Wiser, found just feet from the door to his garage with the door knob still lodged in his hand. In fact, as Wiser had been experiencing financial difficulty, many members of the town believed that Wiser had caused the catastrophe in order to collect insurance money for his ruined business. Unless he was setting up something to go off overnight while no one was in the building and something went terribly wrong, I don’t feel this is a likely scenario. It would take a special breed of monster to cause an explosion with than many people in the building. Plus, he died in the explosion which isn’t very helpful if you’re trying to pull off an insurance scam to make you money to pay your debts.

Block of buildings containing the Bond Dance Hall as they looked in the years prior to the explosion of 1928 when they were leveled.

Source: Unlock the Ozarks. http://www.unlocktheozarks.org/local-communities/west-plains-mo/bond-dance-hall-explosion/

The aftermath of the explosion of 1928 which killed 40 and injured 23.

Source: Unlock the Ozarks. http://www.unlocktheozarks.org/local-communities/west-plains-mo/bond-dance-hall-explosion/

For a more detailed history and a recitation of some of the eyewitness accounts from the night, please see Madame Morbid’s video about the explosion. While many theories surround the cause of the blast, the cause remains unknown almost a century later.

Review

I found it quite interesting that Woodrell chose to change the details about the tragedy to fictionalize the story when it’s so clearly inspired by an actual event. He even included real individuals. Though he changed their names and blended the traits of some characters into one, their similarities to real victims are unmistakable. I have a theory as to why Woodrell would change things. Number one: he wants to make it clear the main storyline and main characters in his book are entirely fictional; and number two: he chose one of the main theories of causation of the explosion and wants to make it clear this is his choice and not a factual detail. This being included in his main genre of crime fiction, he needed a villain, a motive and a crime. In reality, I tend to believe that what happened was merely a tragic accident brought from unfortunate circumstances and coincidences. If there’s anything more salacious than that, we will likely never know.

First, I’ll start with what Woodrell gets completely right. This man can write. Just look at this example describing the aftermath of the explosion:

The congregated silhouettes of ruin attracted steady visitors who arrived most evenings around sunset to stand and behold in the everyday wonder of sinking light just what contortions tragedy had wrought and left in view. Remains of wall torn to fractions still somehow stood here and there to make partial and keening shapes in the gloaming.

Woodrell, The Maid’s Version, page 79

What a positively beautiful way to describe the combined feelings of desolation and awe that follow such a traumatic event, contrasting it with the consistent beauty of nature’s slow march to the future which arrives on cue irrespective of the absence of the day’s victims. Occasionally I found Woodrell’s prose to be a bit too ornate, possibly so much as to distract from the story. Characters tended to blend together and I found myself turning back to re-read passages and collect my thoughts. Overall, though, I thought the way he writes lends a certain amount of gravity to the subject and accentuated the amount of reverence he very clearly has for Southwest Missouri, its people and its history.

Another thing Woodrell does so well is character development. His characters are incredibly flawed while also still being endearing. They retain an authenticity throughout that makes the story so much more powerful. While I positively couldn’t stand Ruby’s actions, for the most part I still felt I could understand her motivations and the fight or flight instincts that caused her to approach life and relationships with a resolute coldness built upon self preservation. She certainly wouldn’t be the first person in the world to hurt others for the purpose of saving her own psyche. Frankly, at the end of this, I just felt a kind of desolate resignation that the world is the way it is. Human nature tends to destroy rather than build up, and there are consequences for that. And sometimes, misery runs in families like a particularly rotten gene.

The most beautiful character in this is Alma. We follow her through the most heart wrenching, life altering events and find ourselves amazed that a woman could still be standing after so much heartache. Woodrell peppers the text with incredible details that build on our understanding of her until she is a fully formed character to which we feel very close. Alek describes watching her comb her long hair that draped to the floor if it wasn’t pinned to the top of her head, hair “mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page.” The most beautiful moment in this book was a flashback from the 1929 funeral. Borrowing a real detail from the historical record, rescuers were unable to identify the bodies for twenty individuals. The parts of these people were placed together into several coffins and buried together in a mass grave. As the coffins were lined up together, Alma makes her way down the row kissing each coffin in turn to ensure she doesn’t miss the one that contains Ruby. Woodrell proves the true essence of character isn’t wrapped in the description of them but in the little moments that capture the soul.

In a way, I feel this text is a love song to Southwest Missouri. It’s a ballad that celebrates the resilience of an area that is able to come out the other side of tragedy, followed closely on the heels of which comes the Great Depression, and stands a little stronger. In that way, Alma is the beautiful town. She’s bruised and battered, cast aside and nearly forgotten, but she still stands. She is stories and songs, scorch marks beneath windows, and rain dappled ash. She’s both memory of dark and light, all that’s left of everyone and everything she’s ever loved and loathed.

Reading that, you may feel like I absolutely adored this book, and I wish I could say I did. I do feel it has its faults. It had a tendency to feel a bit rushed and muddled, mostly due to its brevity. Woodrell could have easily made this book twice as long and fine-tuned the details and it would have been better for it. The lesser characters wouldn’t have blurred together so much. At times, the jumping around in the timeline was a bit distracting. And I think he could have included more shorter chapters that were snapshots in the lives of victims of the explosion. As it is, there were only a small handful that barely scratched the surface, but I really like what he was trying to do with those. Those are what painted the image of West Table as a town. Those were the lyrics to the love song. Those are what truly told me what was lost that fateful day almost a century ago. It’s a little disappointing to see that be not much more than an afterthought.

Overall, I really enjoyed this quick but heavy read, and I enjoyed learning about the history that inspired this fascinating and tragic story. 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 9780316205856. 164 pages. This post contains affiliate links. I receive a slight commission for purchases made using the links in my site.

About libgirlbooks

I'm a law librarian from the state of Missouri and a graduate of Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. My real passion is in fiction, which is why I started my blog to share my thoughts with other bibliophiles. I live with my husband and two wonderful children and a collection of furry feline companions.
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1 Response to The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell – a Book Review

  1. Pingback: Reading Challenge update – July 30, 2021 | A Librarian and Her Books

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