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3.6 out of 5 stars
The Maid's Version: A Novel
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106 of 112 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 4, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.

This amazing little book has as its centerpiece the mystery surrounding an explosion at a small-town Missouri dance hall back in 1929. Forty-two people were killed and many more injured. One of those killed was a young woman named Ruby, the beloved younger sister of one of the book's main characters, Alma Dunahew. We know that Ruby was having affairs with married men and we know that the town had problems with mobsters, gypsies and even a vengeful preacher who warned against dancing and partying. What we don't know until the end is just who was really to blame.

When the book first starts out we are introduced to Alma from the viewpoint of her 12 year old grandson who is briefly staying with her. From the opening line we see Alma brushing her floor-length grey/white hair and her grandson is a little apprehensive of her. We find out that Alma has had an incredibly difficult life and that she had been estranged for a while from her own son's life. The reasons for that become clear as we read on.

The story jumps around and is told from the viewpoints of many different characters at different points in time. The relevance of some of these characters can become clear at the end of their little chapter but often we don't really understand their importance until later on. For example we may meet someone in one vignette and come to briefly know them and then find out they were killed at the dance hall; and in that way we truly feel the extent of the tragedy and loss. Many of the characters we meet are central to the mystery of what happened and to our understanding of how the characters evolved into the people they are. Their histories and backstories are often brutal and heartbreaking.

In this way we almost see the story as bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and it is only at the end when we have a complete picture of what went on.

I loved this book. Loved it. And if you've ever read this author before you know how beautifully he writes and how the reader gets such a feel and understanding of both place and time from the little vignettes and stories he weaves throughout the the book.

The writing and the descriptions are just out of this world wonderful. Here's just a taste:

"Alma was of a height that earned no description save 'regular,' sturdy in her legs and chest, and her hair was an ordinary who-gives-a-hoot brown, with finger waves above the ears that always collapsed into messy curls as the day went along."

Or,

"Preacher Willard accepted the Ten Commandments as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn't countenance was beyond memorization."

Highly recommended. Just beautifully written from the opening line to the satisfying, chilling conclusion. I will be thinking about this book for a long time.
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43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This lovely book is breathtaking in its unadorned and precise description of a small Ozark town which had been the scene of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929. Our narrator Alek had been sent to live with his grandmother Alma at the age of 12 in order to reconcile the rift between her and his father. Over that summer, Alek learns the stories of the people in Alma's world that filled her summer forty years ago. He grows to know his grandmother as she is today, and how she was during that summer leading up to the fire. Starting from the first page, he observes a woman of precise habits whose hair is so long she must braid it to keep it off the floor. Their relationship deepens as the summer progresses and Alma talks to him about that terrible night. She has suffered mightily since then, and she had lost her way. For a time, "she was not currently within her skin, and they weren't sure who or what was.". The mystery of the explosion had never been solved, but Alma has her own beliefs on the solution. Her belief is conveyed with some tension that informs the depth of the mystery. As they grow closer, she challenges him to relate what he has learned. I think she half hoped he would intuit the truth as she saw it. Alma is one of my favorite characters in recent history, and she talks to her grandson and during the flashbacks, I came to admire this woman with many dimensions. She has braved the difficult task of seeing within herself, and has born that price of bearing what she sees.

Each person in this book is revealed in short vignettes that interact in a dance that soon appears to have been almost inevitable. Alma had known them all in her role as a servant from a poor family. Working in the big house, her observations bridge the gap in social status, and reveals the threads that bind everyone. At times the book returns to days of 1960's, and we are able to learn the harvest of those past events in the lives of Alma and her family. . This is a short book, but conveys a complex picture of a world at a certain time and place, and the echoes that reverberate for years. The setting is painted in terms that bring the reader directly to that world. With simple words, the town is portrayed exactly. As the book progresses, the actual explosion appears in the minds and actions of the characters in a way that sears the readers as well. The prose is so well crafted that I cannot point to one misplaced word. Woodrell has used his writing to weave a web of reality based on a true event. I have seldom been this impressed with a book, and fervently hope you will share it with me.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Certain authors have a language and a style all their own. I don't mean an invented language, like Tolkien, Pratchett, or Rowling, but rather a way of capturing language that is unique to them. Daniel Woodrell, who has written books such as Winter's Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister is one of those authors. His ability to capture the language of people in the Ozarks makes his books feel tremendously authentic and even more captivating.

In 1929, the small community of West Table, Missouri was rocked by a fire and explosion in the Arbor Dance Hall, which killed 42 people. As with any tragedy, immediately talk turned to the causes of this disaster and who was responsible. Was it caused by the local gypsies? Mobsters from St. Louis on the hunt for one of their own? The frenzy unleashed by a preacher who lashed out at the immoral behavior of the dancers and partiers? Or was it simply a tragic accident?

Alma DeGeer Dunahew knows what caused the tragedy that killed her flirtatious sister, Ruby. But Alma, who works as a maid for one of West Table's most prominent families, is viewed as crazy by the town citizens, many of whom don't really want to know what happened that night, or are willing to turn a blind eye to the truth if it protects the town from the effects of the Great Depression. Her need to speak the truth leads her to lose her job, her mind, and estranges her from one of her sons, John Paul.

Years later, Alma finally has the opportunity to tell her story from start to finish, to her grandson, Alek. And the story, populated with mobsters, hobos, preachers, local businessmen, criminals, and lawmen, not to mention brief glimpses of many of those who were killed or injured in the fire, is a complicated one, but one that utterly captures the Dunahew family's struggles. Alma encourages Alek to "Tell it. Go on and tell it." And tell it he does.

The Maid's Version is a short book--only about 170 pages--but it is packed with a powerful narrative and so many colorful characters, it's difficult to remember who everyone is. Woodrell's storytelling ability is in fine form, as is his evocative language, and while this book may not be as strong as some of his previous ones, it's still a tremendously interesting and, ultimately, tragic story. It does take some concentrating, however, because the book meanders back and forth between 1929 and 1963, when Alek is, essentially, hearing Alma's story.

Daniel Woodrell is an exceptional writer. While this book doesn't have the tension or violence of some of his other books, Alma's story is very much worth hearing.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This wonderful, gorgeous, hypnotizing novel is like an epic American poem on par with Homer or Virgil. I was just blown away by this master storyteller and linguistic magician. Not only did I have to reread sections to fully understand their meaning, I reread the whole book, which is short, but jam-packed, just to savor the language. Not a strike of the pen was wasted. Every event is full of portent, each character a revelation. Please read this book. Unique and so enjoyable.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 12, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This was my book club's most recent read and weighing in at 164 pages I thought it would be an easy one to devour in a day or two. Unfortunately it's not one of those books, it's the other kind, you know the ones, they're disjointed hard to follow and greedily withhold a full picture of events, trickling little bits of story out like they were breadcrumbs for the pigeons in the park.

The dance hall in West Table, Missouri, was blown to bits back in 1929. Alma Dunahew lost her sister in the blast and her life was never the same. She recounts events that happened during that period of time, including the death of her husband, Buster. The mystery of who caused the explosion has never been solved but Alma believes she knows what happened and why. She finally tells her grandson Alek what she thinks happened that night.

The narration of this story totally confused me, I think it's narrated by Alek, telling Alma's version of events as he's learned by listening to her stories. The characters are revealed a little bit a time, sometimes we find out about one of the victims, other times we learn about a survivor. Often the timeframe of events being described are unclear as are the relationships between the characters. There are parenthetical interjections from Alek that are confusing and interrupt the flow of the narration. The story assembles itself like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and for the first half feels as challenging as a puzzle to read. But finally by the time you reach the middle the shape of the story emerges and if you are lucky you can see the really great writing that makes up this annoying little book.

There were parts that I found very amusing, one part in particular had me laughing out loud and reading the passage aloud to my children. But I doubt that many others will find this tickling their funny bone. I'm glad I read this with friends, it certainly reads better with a discussion. Honestly, the added pressure to finish the book was the only thing that made me stick with it. And I'm glad I finished because despite how much I hated the beginning this was a good story, with some seriously juicy stuff going on, unfortunately the telling of it felt like a punishment for the reader. It reminded me of Chris Cleave's 'Little Bee' which I described as "a slice of literary brilliance sprinkled with what I can only think of as literary cow pies". The Maid's Version had a similar brilliance only instead of being sprinkled with cow pies, it was as if (as a friend described it) Woodrell wrote a great novel, then cut it into pieces, threw it to the floor and reassembled it as a whole in the order it landed.

I completely understand those readers who hated this and gave up on it. I found abandoning it tempting on multiple occasions but as I said I'm glad I stuck with it.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell is a small book but reads like a tome, with such literate and beautiful imagery that I was enthralled. The book centers around the mystery of the explosion at Arbor Dance Hall in 1929. The explosion killed 42 people, many unrecognizable in death with their bodies broken up or burned beyond recognition. Alma Dunahew lost her sister Ruby in the explosion and for years has been trying to discover the answer to what happened. Those years have been hard on her with several of them spent at the Work Farm in West Table, Missouri, due to her psychic breakdown caused by rage and grief. Many of the town's most wealthy citizens want to put the truth of the explosion to the side and no one has ever been apprehended for the crime. They look at Alma's ramblings about the explosion as words from a crazy person. The magnitude of the explosion was enormous. "Just as full darkness fell those happy sounds heard in the surviving house suddenly became a nightmare chorus of pleas, cries of terror, screams as the flames neared crackling and bricks returned tumbling from the heavens and stout beams crushed those souls knocked to the ground. Walls shook and shuddered for a mile around and the boom was heard faintly in the next county south and painfully by everyone in the town limits."

One summer in 1965, Alma's young grandson Alec comes to visit her. It is to him that she spills the story of the dance hall and her theory about what happened that night. Going back and forth in time, the novel gives the reader vignettes about those who were killed in the dance hall explosion along with the story of Ruby, Alma's sister. Ruby was a great flirt and what was called in those days a loose woman. She would love them and leave them until she found a real love with the banker, Arthur Glencross. Glencross was married and Alma worked as a maid for the Glencross family. She worked very hard to hide Arthur's affair from his wife Corrine by carefully washing his clothing to get out smells and stains that would serve as evidence of his affair with Ruby. After Ruby's death, Alma hated Arthur and this was evident in her actions. But was Arthur responsible for the explosion? It could have been the preacher Isaiah Willard who spoke of death and damnation to those who danced. He believed that "the easiest portals to the soul through which demons might enter was that opened by dancing feet. Evil music, evil feet, salacious sliding and the disgusting embraces dancing excused provided an avenue of damnation that could readily be seen and blockaded" He was heard to say of the Arbor Dance Hall during that summer, "I'll blow this place to Kingdom soon and drop those sinners into the boiling patch - see how they dance then." What about the hobos hanging around town? Those passing through with bad intentions? Someone with a grudge against one of the dancers? Who was it? Alma thinks she knows and tells her story to Alec.

Of the 42 killed in the explosion, only 28 were whole enough so that graves could be made for them. Most of them were not identified. The rest were parts buried in a pit. Alma's grief was such that she "touched all twenty-eight and kissed them each, kneeling to kiss the fresh black paint between her spread aching fingers, said the same words to accompany every kiss because there was no way to know which box of wood held Ruby, or if she rested in only one, had not been separated into parts by crushing or flames and interred in two or three, so she treated every box as though her sister was inside in parts or whole and cried to the last."

Woodrell's style of writing is unique, sounding like I'd imagine the tenor of speech spoken in the Ozarks. At times it's a difficult book because of the writing style and the subject matter. It is, however, stunning and has left me with a deep and abiding appreciation for this author's work. I thank him for sharing his talent and vision with readers.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Okay, we all know it happens. One of our favorite writers, who consistently wins our hearts, finally turns in a book that disappoints us painfully. I love all of Woodrells books...except this one. Confused storytelling, jumpy, erratic, without enough of an emotional through-line for us to wrap our heads and hearts around. Saying this is horribly painful for me because I dig Woodrell so much, but I've got to be honest and just hang my hopes on his next novel getting him back to form.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 25, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Woodrell is another one of those authors who I am sad to say it’s taken me too long to come to. Not out of any conscious avoidance but simply because there’s too much out there to read and too much must always be left out. Still, I read this one and it’s amazingly good.

The plot of this brief novel is fairly straightforward: in the small town of West Table, Missouri, over forty people are killed in an explosion at the local dance hall in 1929. The question is, who caused it? Was it an accident or willful mass murder?

Mr. Woodrell manages the plot well. He gives us hints and drips of information through various eyes before revealing the none-too-obvious nor completely unexpected truth in the last few pages; however, the brilliance of this work is the people and place he captures so well. Having grown up in southern Illinois and spent many a day in the Ozarks, I was amazed at how real these people were. I could hear the voices of people I knew in these characters—rural survivors of the Depression with their own moral codes and small town ways, both good and bad.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a novel this much. I am definitely going to have to go back and look at some of Mr. Woodrell’s other work.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A number of character sketches threaded together by the West Plains Explosion of 1929, with the banker's maid concluding her version on the last four pages. Woodrell refrains from negative Ozarkian stereotypes and, in fact, this tragic story as written could have happened in Anywhere, Small Town America.

Woodrell does use real locations and a few real old-family names in the story, but more frequently he plays on these names, which added to the reading fun of this West Plains native.

Some of Woodrell's writing is quite lyrical: "Trains have haunted the nights in West Table since 1883 and disrupt sleep and taunt those awakened. The trains beating past toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing. You're going nowhere, you're going nowhere, and those wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on singing along twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those mild-and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won't lead or even witness are lived."

Some of his writing made me say "Huh, what was that again?" demanding of me a second or third re-read. In fact I am finding a complete second reading of the book delightful. It will be a selection of the Kansas City Star Book Club in November and I hope to be selected to participate.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Don't be fooled by the modest length of this novella. This is no light read. Rather, it's as dense as a Christmas pudding, stuffed to groaning with sweetmeats and pickled things and familiar but unsettling tokens, then drowned in something bitterly alcoholic and set recklessly ablaze.

The book's synopsis seems to promise a work of Southern noir, an expose of the mysteries and secrets surrounding a horrific 1920s dance hall fire that devastates a small, insular southern town. But this book is character- rather than plot-driven, an expose not so much of - a crime? an accident? an act of love? an act of vengeance? - as an exploration of how complex prejudices, motivations, and relationships within a community spin a web so tangled and inescapable that a tug upon one strand has unforeseeable and often tragic consequences upon the whole.

Before too many pages have passed, the alert reader will realize that Woodrell isn't like other storytellers. One becomes used to authors "tidying" their material - arranging events in chronological order, emphasizing important details, omitting insignificant events - the better to aid their readers' comprehension. Real life, in contrast, is anything but tidy: information gets dispersed erratically, if at all; critical details are omitted or pass unrecognized; and distracting red herrings abound. Woodrell's storytelling technique mimics this latter style, which I gather some readers have found off-putting but which I found fascinating. The result is that one is constantly having to cast aside preconceived notions, question biases, and reevaluate assumptions.

All of which makes this dense going, but well worth the labor if you're willing to set aside your preconceived notions about what this book "should be" - a formulaic Southern gothic - and accept it for what it is - a much more genuine, and in many ways infinitely more tragic, exploration of the tangled webs - spun by generations of poverty, pride, aspiration, humiliation, hope, despair, class, race, love and loss - that our untidy, unruly human hearts inevitably weave.
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