Novelist Daniel Woodrell
Daniel Woodrell, a novelist who lives just over the Arkansas border in West Plains, Missouri, has a new book out. The Maid's Version is his retelling of a factual West Plains disaster that happened in 1928. Woodrell recreates the event in the fictional town of West Table, Missouri, and with the story of Alma DeGeer Dunahew, maid to a prominent banking family.
Woodrell is best known as the author of Winter's Bone, a novel also set here in the Ozarks, and later made into an Academy Award nominee for best motion picture, starring Jennifer Lawrence. The film and the book met with widespread critical acclaim everywhere, but with some minor discordant views by local reviewers objecting to Woodrell's bleak depiction of the people who live in the Ozarks. We are, in Winter's Bone, and in The Maid's Version, a violent, impoverished, mean-spirited, and despairing lot.
Whether these local objections have substance is in the eyes of the beholder. William Faulkner, who Woodrell is often (and favorably) compared to, and who did more than anyone to create and inculcate the national stereotype for rural southerners, never escaped the opprobrium of his Oxford, Mississippi, neighbors for creating the irredeemably gothic Snopes family--even after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Some folks don't mind kicking their own dog, but they don't like it much when someone else does it.
Dog kicker or no, Woodrell is the most elegant of writers. The Maid's Version, in a prose style that, though economical, is as poetic as the King James Bible, is the story of a family that is "one dropped dish and a loud reprimand from complete and utter poverty." At the center of their story is an unsolved dance hall explosion that kills 42 local residents, including the free-spirited sister of the household maid Alma DeGeer Dunahew. Alma is certain she knows who caused the explosion--and why--but is unable to penetrate the walls of secrecy and privilege that protect the guilty. Thirty-six years after the explosion, Alma is still furious that no one was ever called to account for the disaster, but she is determined to share the story that everyone else in town wants to suppress. They close ranks against Alma's "bottom-dog scorn" and her accusations against West Table's leading citizens.
The explosion and its aftermath described in The Maid's Version closely matches the actual West Plain's disaster. On April 13, 1928, for reasons still unknown, a violent explosion occurred in downtown West Plains. About 60 people had gathered in the Bond Dance Hall, which was on the second floor of a building on East Main Street. The explosion was reported to be felt for miles, even in Pomona, which is approximately ten miles from West Plains. Windows were shattered throughout the block, and cars were also warped on the street. The explosion also damaged the nearby Howell County Courthouse so badly that it was vacated and left until late 1933, when it was demolished by the Civil Works Administration. Thirty-seven (37) people were killed in the explosion, and 22 people were injured. Twenty (20) of those killed were never positively identified and buried in a mass grave at Oak Lawn Cemetery in the southeast part of town. Today, they are memorialized by the Rock of Ages monument, erected on October 6, 1929. The explosion has also been remembered in a folksong recorded 30 years later.*
The reasoning behind the explosion is still a topic of controversy nearly a century after the blast. Numerous reasons for the explosion have been offered, but a definitive story has never been proven to be true. The most widely accepted theory is that the explosion somehow originated from leaking gasoline in a garage owned by J. W. Wiser, which happened to be on the floor below. Because Wiser was at the garage at the time, some have speculated that the blast was intentionally caused by Wiser as a suicide attempt, which his wife reportedly refused to acknowledge. In addition, the late West Plains native Robert Neathery explained in his 1994 book, West Plains As I Knew It, that a truck containing dynamite parked in the garage may have been the cause, indirectly part of a crime in which someone shot Wiser and set a fire to cover up the crime, and the dynamite exploded.'
The Maid's Version is Woodrell's 9th novel. Five have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the year. His novel Tomato Red, won the PEN West Award for novel in 1999, and The Death of Sweet Mister received the Clifton Fadiman Medal from the Center for Fiction. The Maid's Version adds to Woodrell's reputation as one of the most important writers working today.