Daniel Woodrell returns to his fictional community of West Table in Howl County, Missouri, for his latest novel, The Maid's Version - a tale of an explosion at a packed, small town dance hall in the late 1920's that reverberates through the rural setting for generations.
The story explores several possibilities for the cause of the explosion, but quietly coalesces into the version of events that is put forth by an area domestic, a maid by the name of Alma DeGeer Dunahew who has worked in some of the more prominent homes of the community. Alma's younger sister, Ruby, a woman with a reputation, was killed in the massive and unexplained explosion which claimed the lives of dozens of local residents. Ruby's death haunts and possesses Alma.
The dance hall and the explosion, like West Table and Howl County, are barely fictional. Mr. Woodrell lives and writes in the town of West Plains in beautiful Howell County, Missouri, a place which he has repeatedly featured in his fiction. On Friday, the 13th day of April in 1928, the Bond Dance Hall in West Plains was destroyed by a huge explosion that broke most of the town's windows, warped cars on the street, and was felt ten miles away. Sixty people were at the dance that night, many of whom were prominent members of local society. Thirty-seven were killed in the explosion and subsequent fire, and of those twenty were so burned and mangled that they could not be identified. They were buried in a mass grave at the local cemetery.
The Bond Dance Hall, like the dance hall in Woodrell's novel, was located above a garage, and one of the theories bandied about through the intervening years was that a car in the garage might have been leaking gasoline. Others speculated that the fire was intentional, and one version suggested that one truck in the garage was loaded with dynamite which was somehow ignited.
Years ago as a young high school history teacher in Mountain View, Missouri, in northern "Howl" County, some of my students were doing independent research into the history of the area. One young man made a presentation to the class regarding information he had garnered from interviewing a relative. His talk was on the dance hall explosion in West Plains. He was excited about the story and had made a trip to the local library for more information on the event. His excitement, of course, was infectious.
The legend was growing.
Daniel Woodrell is an exceptional writer. (The Los Angeles Times Book Review compares him to Faulkner.) His books, particularly Tomato Red and Winter's Bone, show the Ozarks in a stark reality and more detail than film could ever capture. The Maid's Version, like his previous works, is fiction that rings very, very true - particularly to someone who has wandered through many of those same locales that Woodrell describes with such fierce honesty.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell are always unsettling treats. The Maid's Version is no exception.