It’s been seven years since Daniel Woodrell’s last novel – Winter’s Bone – and three since the adaptation of that novel became one of the most decorated films of the year, launching an unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere, and Woodrell onto the front table of your local bookstore and the center aisle of Costco.
It was the kind of mainstream success critics and writers have been hoping (and harping) for since Woodrell’s first novel, Under the Bright Lights, came out in 1986. There’s not a writer alive with a more distinct voice – his closest kin here may be a dead man named William Faulkner – nor a writer more willing to shift gears from book to book, both in terms of narrative style and genre, adroitly jumping from modern stories of gothic crime to historical drama, all in order to service what seems his biggest obsessions: the darkness of human empathy and the sudden, explosive violence that results from love.
Winter’s Bone was Woodrell’s most accessible book, certainly, and maybe his absolute best as it contained all of what Woodrell does best in the tight package of a young woman fighting to save her family amidst crime and revenge in the Ozarks. It would reason, then, that Woodrell might attempt to replicate that success with his next book, as that seems to be the flavor most readers want from their favorite authors: something familiar, if slightly different. To his great credit, that doesn’t appear to have entered his mind as his latest, The Maid’s Version, is like nothing Woodrell has ever written.
And that’s a good thing.
The Maid’s Version centers on the mysterious 1929 explosion of a dance hall in West Table, Mo., that killed 42 people. Among the dead is Ruby, the sister of Alma DeGreer Dunahew – the maid in the title – who has spent years regaling her grandson Alek with her memory of events. It’s a memory that has struck her mad, made the entire town of West Table alternately fear and possibly respect her, at least privately, and turned her grandson into the vessel of tales here.
It becomes his job to speak for the dead – in short vignettes, Woodrell paints their history, like the young lovers Ollie and Lucille, blown apart in the explosion, Lucille only identified days later by “the brooch that had burned deeply into her chest” – but also to lay out the case for who may have directly or indirectly caused the fire.
“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 contortion tragedy had wrought and left in view,” Woodrell writes toward the middle of the book as the town of West Table tries to make sense of what has happened, to assign blame, to mourn, but in fact it’s what the The Maid’s Version attempts to do throughout: find order in chaos.
For Alma, there are good reasons to believe her sister is at the center of the chaos. Her romance with the married president of the local bank (and Alma’s employer) rippling into the lives of others, begetting violence, loss and regret long before the fire. But then there are the other tendrils of those lost to the flames – the former crook attempting to live a straight life in tiny West Table who has found trouble again, the preacher who has demanded hell fire for those who dance at night, the local gypsies, or even Alma’s own children.
That’s not to say The Maid’s Version is a mystery, exactly. It’s a story of a small town with the normal kind of rot – Woodrell is too nuanced a writer to suggest that an entire town is rotten - rather that each person’s life is filled with the ability to do great right and great wrong, as well as do something in between, which may just be called living – where just “because you’re a bum, it doesn’t mean you’re bad” but where a cover-up for the greater good of the people is all too possible as well.
What Alek discovers and what the reader discovers may be two entirely different things – there is surely guilt for the fire to be had and the repercussions stretch from the moment of conflagration to a point long after the book has concluded – though they are parts of a conflicted whole. There is a person to blame, but he or she is in the machinery of something larger, something more troubling than the mere strike of a match: the complicity of an entire generation of townspeople to let horror be, to make everyone guilty simply by staying in the city.
The Maid’s Version is a slim book – only 164 pages – but it contains the power of shared memory, of a secret on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and with that comes an enduring, indefatigable, unforgettable weight.
The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell, Little, Brown, 164 pages. Reviewer Tod Goldberg is an author living in California.