Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Explosive Mystery

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What an extraordinary novella this is! It's the story of an old woman telling her grandson about what she knows of a horrific event that happened decades ago. It's also the story a small town in Missouri and how it deals with a tragedy. It also has a love story.

That Woodrell has accomplished all of that in 164 pages is impressive. And with such beautiful prose! This is my first Woodrell book, but it won't be my last.

The story opens with Alma DeGeer Dunahew sharing what she knows about a 1929 explosion at a dance hall that killed dozens in the town, including Alma's sister, Ruby. Alma is spending time with her grandson, who begins the book with this description of her:

"She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She'd sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light flowing in through both windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn't walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head. Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself. She'd been born a farm girl, then served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn't sleep past dawn to win a bet, and all the mornings I knew with her 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 ... It was years before I learned to love her."

I italicized the line about being born a farm girl because I liked it so much. Anyway, Alma was a longtime maid of Arthur Glencross, who was an important banker in town. We soon learn that Arthur had been having an affair with Ruby, and Alma wasn't happy about it. When Ruby broke up with Arthur, it caused a rift. The night of the explosion, several townsfolk saw Arthur acting suspiciously, running through streets and speeding away in his car. 

But wait! Before you jump to conclusions about who or what caused the explosion at the dance hall, you need to meet the rest of the town. Each chapter brings us different voices, different narrators, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. We meet Alma's husband and children, Ruby's lovers, and many of the people who were at the dance hall that night. An especially moving chapter was the description of the memorial service for the victims: 

"The town was represented from high to low, the disaster spared no class or faith, cut into every neighborhood and congregation, spread sadness with an indifferent aim. The well dressed and stunned, the sincere in bibs and broken shoes, sat side by side and sang the hymns they had in common."

I like writers who can masterfully share multiple perspectives of a story and create a narrative that flows between the past and the present. The structure of the book reminded me of a few others I had liked: "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell and "The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks. The prose truly is lovely; I paused numerous times to reread a pretty sentence.

If you prefer a linear story with only one narrator, you might not enjoy this book. But if you like beautiful prose, a rich cast of characters and stories with a bit of mystery, you might love this.

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