The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell is one of those quiet little novels of Americana that slowly lift the veil off the portrait of small town America by Norman Rockwell to show the beating dead heart of Norman Bates lying beneath it. Which is why Woodrell should be a freakin’ national treasure.
“…Ruby DeGeer didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked them to shatter coolly, with no ugly scenes of departure where an arm got twisted behind her back by a crying man, or her many failings and damp habits were made specific in words shouted out an open window…”
In the small town of West Table, Missouri, Alma DeGeer Dunahew is a maid for a prominent family and mother of three young boys. Her husband is mostly gone and her younger sister is too often the gossip of this small town.
Ruby is a pretty young girl and learned early on how to trade her looks and favors for the attention of the older married men of West Table. They would buy her what she wanted but they would often misunderstand how much they owned her. Alma would have to save her younger sister from time to time from the beatings and scandal.
Until the local dance hall explosion and fire of 1929, where 42 people were killed. Including Ruby. Many different people were suspected of the fire. From mobsters, to gypsies, to a local preacher who damned the patrons of the dance hall as sinners burning in the fires on Earth before they were sent to the fires of Hell.
But for Alma, there could only be one answer. The fire was set to kill her sister Ruby and keep the dark secrets of the married man she was sleeping with. The man, being the very head of the household that Alma was the Maid for.
“…During those years in which Alma DeGeer Dunahew was considered to have become crazy, her brain turned to diseased meat by the unchecked spread of suspicion amidst a white simmering and reckless hostility, a caustic sickness between her ears could be witnessed by viewing the erosion of the very color in her eyes as she raged and the involuntary sideways tug of her lips as each heated word was thrown.
Folks said, ‘Grief has chomped on her like wolves do a calf…”
In The Maid’s Version, Woodrell digs into the various probabilities and answers as to who may have set the fire. But also putting front and center the suspicions of Alma and the cover up she believed happened by the town and its leaders. Generations pass as her own children turn their backs on her and until her own grand child may be the only one to search for the truth she holds dear. Justice for a sister that no one else missed. That hurt many others in her own selfishness but never deserved to die along with 41 other innocent lives.
Woodrell’s narrative is calm and steady, he allows the plot and setting to move the tale forward. His characters rich and true. You know these people. You have met them. Only you do your best to pass them by and not be caught up in their world even though you know that your own curiosity will betray you. As he did in his brilliant, Winter’s Bone, Woodrell displays the glimmer of truth being buried by the overwhelming sense of hopelessness his characters face. And their integrity as they hold to that truth regardless of their own cost.
A very good read.