Out today, The Maid’s Version marks Woodrell’s first full-length novel in seven years; his last, Winter’s Bone, was published in 2006 and subsequently made into an Oscar-nominated film. In 2011, he released a collection of stories—The Outlaw Album. Of Woodrell’s eight previous novels, five were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The author makes his home in the Ozarks, and returns to that setting in The Maid’s Version, which was inspired by a real-life small town catastrophe.
As the story begins, readers are introduced to young Alek Dunahew, who has been sent to live with his grandmother, Alma, during summertime in the 1960s. Alma, the former maid to a prominent family, is an embittered and vengeful old woman who remains haunted by the town’s tragedy—the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, which claimed the lives of forty-two people, including Alma’s high-spirited and seemingly worldly sister, Ruby. While the case has gone officially unresolved, townsfolk have expressed a variety of suspicions throughout the years, and Alma’s own strong opinions on the subject remain the source of a long-standing feud between her and Alek’s father.
The narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks in which Alma recalls the events of her past (as told by her grandson)—her drunken, mostly absent husband; her sister’s romantic indiscretions; her own experiences in serving the town’s privileged—and lays bare her theory of what transpired that fateful night. Interspersed throughout are short vignettes that introduce other victims of the fire and tell of the circumstances that led them to be at the dance hall. A pool of suspects also emerges, allowing suspicion to be cast upon an intolerant preacher, local gypsies, and traveling gangsters, though Alma remains firmly convinced that it was one of her sister’s ill-conceived dalliances that somehow incited the blaze.
Though The Maid’s Version can certainly be considered a whodunit, the author’s central focus appears to be in exploring the impact of tragedy, both on the community at large as well as within a family throughout generations. That’s an ambitious undertaking for a book that totals 164 pages, but Woodrell largely pulls it off with a sense of grace. His writing is richly evocative, and his descriptions often verge on poetic. (A categorization of Alma’s lengthy locks: “The hair was mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page.”) That such heady subject matter and stylistic flair is handled with a sense of deceptive simplicity only further buttresses the notion that Woodrell is one of contemporary fiction’s master storytellers.
Ultimately, the beauty of The Maid’s Version is that, though short in length, it remains with you long after the last page has been turned. Rather than allowing excessive prose to diminish the narrative potency, Woodrell employs a well-honed sparsity, which has the affect of imposing upon readers an abundance of thought-provoking questions, not the least of which is: how does our own version of truth fit into a more complex and comprehensive truth? While some might object to the book’s brevity, there’s something to be said for leaving your audience wanting more…
With thanks to Sabrina Callahan, Publicity Director at Little, Brown and Company, for providing a review copy of The Maid’s Version.