Daniel Woodrell is clearly among the best living American writers when it comes to evoking the sights, sounds and even the smell of the blood-soaked terrain on which most of his novels take place. Described by some as the master of “country noir,” Woodrell is incredibly gifted at describing small towns of the Missouri Ozarks while also delivering pitch-perfect dialogue straight out of those hills. At times, he’s so spot-on you can almost taste the dirt of the “holler.” With the slow, deliberate cadence of a Southern summer afternoon, The Maid’s Version unravels the tragic story of a dance hall explosion that rips apart a small Missouri town and takes the lives of 42 young men and women.
Go on and tell it,” are the instructions a father gives his 12-year-old son Alek after he learns the truth behind the horrible disaster in the town of West Table, Mo., in the doom-filled year of 1929. And slowly, this narrator begins to unfold a complex tale of extramarital affairs and petty jealousies. It’s a story that is told to Alek by his grandmother, Alma, who has worked as a maid for some of the most well-to-do individuals and their families in town.
Woodrell’s prose is so poetic and languid that it sometimes seems like it might drip right off the page like sap from a mighty tree: “He didn’t know what he liked between the sheets until she showed him … She knew all the worthwhile crevices and wrinkles and bulbous places that made the body entire sing and sing of release, and the more release he experienced the more he sought.”
It’s not until the final pages when we learn the complete and detailed story of that sorry night, but Woodrell has so masterfully set up this denouement, it feels like a badly needed breath of fresh air. The Maid’s Version is best read slowly and Woodrell’s precise descriptions are so vivid that this dance hall explosion will stick in your mind long after you finish reading. Grade: A