Fire on the Dancefloor in 'The Maid's Version'

The Maid's Version (Little, Brown) begins with an introduction to the wild and whimsical Alma DeGeer Dunahew, our title character and the source of the forthcoming tale. She is a world-weathered soul, made supposedly mad by the things she has seen and more she has not, in the small dusty town of West Table, Mo., in which the scene is set. Through Alma’s grandson, charged by her with the re-telling of the tale, we encounter a community bound by tragedy.

A mysterious explosion in the late 1920s at the local town hall dance that claimed Alma’s beloved sister, along with 41 others, serves as the catalyst to her ever-evolving pain and desire to uncover the culprit responsible. What follows are a series of vignettes set prior to, during, and after the incident, suspended in time, delivering glimpses of drama and heartache into what is otherwise a quiet and insular world.

The secrets of the town — infidelity, murder, theft — are made accessible through these stories, as Woodrell deftly designs a convoluted map of the incident and its participants and the often unpleasant truths hidden just below the surface of the charming country facade.

Our narrator, Alex, is just that: not omniscient, but rather so absent from the central plot that we forget his relation to the characters.We gain insight into the world largely through Alma and John Paul, her son, as they torture themselves with painful memories and an unshakeable grudge. There is a tangibility to their anguish emphasized by the simplicity of their language, evidenced in exchanges like Alma's lament, "That place there was home to Mrs. Prader, who cheated me of near eleven dollars when your uncle Sidney was a-dying in bed with no medicine for the pain. He moaned constant as the wind and couldn't catch his breath. Not even fourteen years old."

The tale ambles on with a bourbon drawl, akin to that Woodrell employed in the wonderful Winter's Bone — sad and slow, but without the lack of action that can often plague these kind of stories. Some chapters are single pages that deviate from the central characters to tell the story of peripheral individuals, who often never reappear. One of the more poignant anecdotes is that of Lucille Johnston, the talented young pianist, newly engaged, taken from her fiancé by cruel circumstance:

The couple were to visit his mother’s people out at Rover, but the regular Arbor pianist had been stranded out at Cape Girardeau, and Lucille reluctantly agreed to sit in with the house band so the dance could proceed and her friends could frolic. Ollie sat on a windowsill with a smile that never wilted. The explosion sent them in different directions, and three days later he identified Lucille by the brooch that had burned deeply into her chest.

These are the small moments in which Woodrell’s finesse for storytelling shines. It seems rare to encounter a writer with such a talent for clarity in brevity, and who can seemingly deliver an entire life, sometimes two, in a matter of mere paragraphs.

That Woodrell can produce an entire community in such detail in less than 175 pages is remarkable. The resulting ambiguity of individual characters is somehow fitting in this context; a sleepy Midwest town whose stories drip molasses slow through the gossipy crevices of town society. If the book is flawed, it is that sometimes this muddled chronology is occasionally confusing to the reader and, with so many characters possessing the similar tone and qualities as one another, the moments become indistinct and unfocused.

Nevertheless, one gets the sense that the book is intended to portray more than a story; rather, it is a portrait of a place in time, of the hardships and bonds of small-town rural America in an arguably simpler, yet perhaps harder, time.