The premise and opening pages of The Maid’s Version do not disappoint. In 1929, a dance hall fire devastates a small Ozark town, wiping out the flower of the community’s youth and traumatizing families for years to come. Alma Dunahew, a maid at the time of the fire, passes her version of the story down to her grandson, Alek: “Her hair was as long as her story… she’d sit in the first light and brush that witchy-long hair, brush it in sections, over and over, stroking hair that had scarcely been touched by scissors for decades, hair she would not part with despite the extravagance of time it required at each dawn. The hair was mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page.”
Alma’s story seeks to parse the ancient, blurred headlines that have left the town to uneasily record its worst disaster as an unsolved mystery. Alek connects Alma’s memories, family and town anecdotes, and his own speculation, to highlight the class and gender divides that might have protected a gentleman from the town’s suspicions.
The novel is short, at a spare 164 pages. Alma’s voice (“She hated that she fed another man’s children before she fed her own”) gives way to many others–perhaps too many–in those pages, from Alma’s upper class masters and mistresses to back-alley criminals. The vivacious youths that perished in the fire make appearances, along with their family members, never letting the reader forget the victims. As the narrative shifts point of view more frequently in the second half, and the threads of too many interwoven stories threaten to unravel, the novel’s brevity becomes a virtue.
But overall, The Maid’s Version is a rich, penetrating read. Woodrell portrays, with alternating warmth and frustration, a tiny community of people living worlds apart. Alma’s sister, Ruby, loves wealthy banker Arthur Glencross, but his feelings for Ruby can never be stronger than the bounds of his social station. Alma’s son, John Paul, knows that the hostility his mother nurses against the town’s best families is justified, but he cannot honor her prejudices when a genteel position affords him a better chance to provide for his own home. The dance hall fire brings those divides, along with the community’s darker fringes, into stark relief. Alma may be the only one able to tell the tale, because the fire leaves her with so little to lose.
The Maid’s Version is not Daniel Woodrell’s masterpiece, but it does live up to the promise of Winter’s Bone in an important way. Woodrell could have simply played to his clear strengths as a genre novelist in this followup. He chose, instead, to explore themes touched on in his earlier work in a new way, and he offered this challenging story in a relatively digestible but perfectly respectable package, at under 200 pages. The Maid’s Version leaves Woodrell’s readers satisfied for the moment, and ready for more.