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Book Review

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

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Publisher: Sceptre, hardback, paperback

1 of 1 Fire in the Hall: backwoods Missouri and the repercussions following a dance hall fire of 1928 are the matter of Daniel Woodrell's skillful story
Fire in the Hall: backwoods Missouri and the repercussions following a dance hall fire of 1928 are the matter of Daniel Woodrell's skillful story

On the night of April 13, 1928 an explosion occurred in the Missouri city of West Plains. Some 60 people were dancing in the Bond Dance Hall, on the second floor of a building on East Main Street when the conflagration occurred.  

39 people subsequently lost their lives (although Woodrell's novel posits it at 42 casualties.) In any case, mystery still surrounds the catastrophic events, although there is much support for the theory that a suicide attempt by a local worthy got out of hand.

Another theory is that a truck loaded with gasoline parked nearby had ignited. A Missouri native, from the Ozark Mountains, novelist Daniel Woodrell takes the real-life story to fashion his tightly-wired, doom-laden drama, with its biblical overtones, its contrasts of sin and sanctity, and rich and poor.

Reading the (albeit fictional) account of a local man, as it were, the reader feels that despite the passing of the best part of a century, Woodrell has a handle not just on the speech modes, but on the way people might think after such a tragedy. He has a canny sense for the insidious way in which suspicion and blame might grow like a deep-rooted canker, following such a catastrophe.

Woodrell refashions West Plains as the small town of Arbor , and with Dickens-like vividness, builds up his detailed engraving of the social classes and how they interact – exploitatively, as you might expect, but decently too, the big shots aren’t all bad.  

At the core of the story is the baleful (and bileful) Alma, whose sister Ruby died in the explosion. Both were reared in dirt poor circumstances, and Woodrell is very good at effortlessly demonstrating just what it meant to be inches away from squalor in rural Missouri at that period.

Recalling the sequence of events in her old age, the embittered Alma has her own theory about who is culpable for the fire, bound up with the loss of her reformed alcoholic husband Buster in a car crash, prior to the fire.

Thus she shares her belief about what actually happened in the lead-up to the fire with her narrator grandson, who spent some time living with her as a boy.  

Ultimately, Woodrell’s  164-page novel, or novella, is a saga of three generations and how they made do in the Depression. They eked out their existences in the midst of early death and hard luck, as the town's tiered society sleepwalked in amoral torpor. A kind of sexual ruthlessness stalks the tale, primal impulses rampant, death-dealing is never far away.

Woodrell,  the author of a eight novels, also wrote Winter’s Bone, which was the basis for a Debra Granik-directed film, starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt. It was nominated for four Oscars in 2011. His novel, Woe to Live On was adapted as Ride with the Devil, directed by Ang Lee. A recent book of stories, The Outlaw Album was published in 2011. Roddy Doyle has dubbed Woodrell as 'one of the world's greatest novelists.' Don't be surprised if someone makes a classy movie from The Maid's Version sometime soon.

Paddy Kehoe

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