The Maid’s Version ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. He is from Missouri and his characters are country people, poor white trash and small-town people. His novels are darkly realistic, spare (averaging about 200 pages), and are so much fun to read because they are so good and so different from a lot of current fiction that is bloated and pretentious. My favorite books by Daniel Woodrell are Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister. I went to one of his book signing events in St. Louis and came away with signed copies of both those books. Daniel Woodrell in person is about what you would expect him to be from his writing. There’s nothing flashy or pretentious about him. You wouldn’t know by looking at him that he’s a celebrated writer.
Daniel Woodrell’s latest book is The Maid’s Version. It is the fascinating story, set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table, of an illicit love affair that leads to tragic consequences. The maid of the title is one Alma Degeer Dunahew, an uneducated woman who is employed as a domestic in the home of one of the leading citizens of the town, Arthur Glencross. Arthur lives in a fine house with his wispy wife and two children and is president of the bank.
Alma has a difficult life. She lives in what is described as a shack. Her husband, named Buster, is a drunk and isn’t very reliable. She has to take care of three boys (one of whom, Sidney, is sick) out of her meager earnings. She also has a younger sister named Ruby, a vivacious girl who is popular with the men and who doesn’t much care whether they’re married or not. Ruby’s unlikely love affair with Arthur Glencross forms the emotional core of the novel. Arthur claims to be in love with Ruby but is terribly afraid that people will find out he is carrying on with her. Their meetings are furtive and passionate. Ruby is also in love with Arthur, so the secrecy is fine with her.
We learn at the beginning that Ruby, along with thirty-nine other people, dies tragically in a fire and explosion at a dance at the Arbor Dance Hall in 1929. (The unidentifiable victims, including Ruby, are buried in a mass grave in the town cemetery, marked by a black angel.) For decades people speculate about what, or who, caused the fire. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nobody seems to know for sure. Was it a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who wanted to teach people a lesson about the wrath of God, or was it St. Louis gangsters? Any theories that people have are all unproveable.
The Maid’s Version isn’t told in linear style. It moves back and forth in time and from one character to another, making it seem a little disjointed and more challenging to read that it might otherwise have been. (Some of the brief sections throughout the novel are glimpses at the lives of people who died in the fire and of how they came to be at the dance.) All the pieces come together at the end, though, and we learn, finally, the truth of how the fire got started and what made it so much worse than in might otherwise have been. The explanation is ironic but completely plausible.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp