Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review: "The Maid's Version" by Daniel Woodrell

Certain authors have a language and a style all their own. I don't mean an invented language, like Tolkien, Pratchett, or Rowling, but rather a way of capturing language that is unique to them. Daniel Woodrell, who has written books such as Winter's Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister is one of those authors. His ability to capture the language of people in the Ozarks makes his books feel tremendously authentic and even more captivating.

In 1929, the small community of West Table, Missouri was rocked by a fire and explosion in the Arbor Dance Hall, which killed 42 people. As with any tragedy, immediately talk turned to the causes of this disaster and who was responsible. Was it caused by the local gypsies? Mobsters from St. Louis on the hunt for one of their own? The frenzy unleashed by a preacher who lashed out at the immoral behavior of the dancers and partiers? Or was it simply a tragic accident?

Alma DeGeer Dunahew knows what caused the tragedy that killed her flirtatious sister, Ruby. But Alma, who works as a maid for one of West Table's most prominent families, is viewed as crazy by the town citizens, many of whom don't really want to know what happened that night, or are willing to turn a blind eye to the truth if it protects the town from the effects of the Great Depression. Her need to speak the truth leads her to lose her job, her mind, and estranges her from one of her sons, John Paul.

Years later, Alma finally has the opportunity to tell her story from start to finish, to her grandson, Alek. And the story, populated with mobsters, hobos, preachers, local businessmen, criminals, and lawmen, not to mention brief glimpses of many of those who were killed or injured in the fire, is a complicated one, but one that utterly captures the Dunahew family's struggles. Alma encourages Alek to "Tell it. Go on and tell it." And tell it he does.

The Maid's Version is a short book—only about 170 pages—but it is packed with a powerful narrative and so many colorful characters, it's difficult to remember who everyone is. Woodrell's storytelling ability is in fine form, as is his evocative language, and while this book may not be as strong as some of his previous ones, it's still a tremendously interesting and, ultimately, tragic story. It does take some concentrating, however, because the book meanders back and forth between 1929 and 1963, when Alek is, essentially, hearing Alma's story.

Daniel Woodrell is an exceptional writer. While this book doesn't have the tension or violence of some of his other books, Alma's story is very much worth hearing.

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