Twelve year old Alek Dunahew is sent to spend the summer of 1965 with his grandmother Alma in West Table, Missouri and hopefully begin to mend the long standing hurt between Alma and Alek’s father, John Paul. During this visit Alma tells Alek about the devastating Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929 that claimed forty-two people, including Alma’s beloved sister, Ruby, as well as her suspicions and beliefs as to what caused the devastation that would continue to haunt this small town for generations.
Growing up poor and hungry, Alma DeGeer knew what struggle looked and felt like. As life went on her part in it did not improve much, with her marrying a drop down drunk named Buster Dunahew and losing two of her three sons, one to disease and one to the hope of a better life far away from West Table. Working as a maid for a rich and influential family brought enough to scrape by, but not by much. Life seemed better for her pretty, vivacious sister, Ruby, and no matter how many of Ruby’s sins Alma had to hold her tongue about, she couldn’t do anything but love her sister.
When the Arbor Dance Hall blew up in flames and killed and maimed members of the community from all walks of life, the town people left to grieve searched for the cause but, beyond speculation and hearsay, the truth was never revealed. Knowing that the wealthiest citizens were hiding something, Alma refused to let her sister die in vain and railed against the entire town until it nearly drove her mad and pushed her remaining son, John Paul, out of her life. It isn’t until finding a sympathetic and willing ear in her grandson Alek that Alma is able to tell her whole story and, in doing so, reveal to the reader the truth behind this travesty that clouded this divided town for years to come.
The Maid’s Version is one of those novels that draws you in with its languid and conversational language and keeps you reading to see what secrets will be revealed between the banter. The narrator, Alek, is such a delightful storyteller that I sometimes forgot he was relaying a story about cruel, severe poverty, violence, war and injustice. The dialect and writing style can be hard to process at times – I found myself occasionally having to go back and read long passages again to better grasp their meaning – but once I began to ease into the manner I found it fit with the rough and tumble story perfectly.
While the book is quite short the various characters are all developed well enough to give you a good feel for not only each individually but them as a whole community trying to eke out an existence together. The peeks into each of their lives not only showcased the secrets inherent in a small town but the devastation and loss these sorts of secrets can render.
The Maid’s Version is my first novel by Daniel Woodrell but I’m excited to read more from him. His way of depicting very real and very relatable characters in such a harsh and unforgiving background is something I won’t soon forget.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.