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Book facts
“The Maid’s Version”
By Daniel Woodrell
Little, Brown
164 pages, $25

Well-knit narrative unravels a mystery

Like its bleak and brilliant predecessor, “Winter’s Bone,” Daniel Woodrell’s ninth novel investigates the intricate, fraught bonds of community. Here is a story that penetrates the secrets that an Ozarks town keeps and the punishments it inflicts on anyone who exposes them.

The eponymous maid who refuses to be quiet is Alma DeGeer Dunahew; the subject of her indiscretion is the 1929 dance hall explosion that killed 42 people in West Table, Mo., including her sister Ruby. Thirty-six years later, Alma is still furious that no one was ever called to account for the disaster.

“She spooked me awake daily that whole summer of my twelfth year,” her grandson Alek confides. Alma is determined to share with Alek the story that West Table suppressed: a tale of bitter class divisions, of “the finer families” closing ranks against Alma’s “bottom-dog scorn and wide accusations aimed generally upward.”

But this, as the title suggests, is Alma’s version. Her son John Paul, Alek’s father, warns Alek against accepting her black-and-white judgments; John Paul grew up with the consequences of them, and the wealthy man she accuses was his benefactor.

As Alek’s narration unfolds, we see that West Table’s rich and poor are knit together in the intimacy of a small town where there are no real secrets, merely facts that people agree not to speak. Those who violate that pact may be right, but they may also be ignoring uncomfortable complexities.

The clues skillfully planted throughout finally cohere to resolve the mystery of the dance hall explosion; the mysteries of why people act as they do are less easily resolved. In fewer than 200 pages, but with a richness of theme and character worthy of the weightiest Victorian novel, Woodrell brings West Table to life in the varied experiences of its sons and daughters – the traumatized survivors and those who died in the explosion. We see cruelty, clannishness and bigotry but also kindness, love and regret.

Woodrell’s economical prose echoes with the flinty cadences of rural speech and the poetry of the Bible. He does full justice to Alma’s grim worldview, based on a hardscrabble existence just “one dropped dish and a loud reprimand from complete and utter poverty.” But he also acknowledges John Paul’s more pragmatic understanding that “you can’t go around being angry at everybody out there who has a swimming pool or a shiny car.”

Alek’s struggle to reconcile the opposing credos of two people he loves provides a moving personal counterpart to the collective drama of the explosion and its aftermath. A bildungsroman wrapped inside a detective puzzle, tracing the odyssey of a town and a family across three generations, “The Maid’s Version” affirms Daniel Woodrell’s niche in American literature.

Wendy Smith is a frequent reviewer for Washington Post Book World.