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A ‘writer’s writer’ delves into 1929 explosion

bookI am convinced that author Daniel Woodrell is what is frequently referred to as “a writer’s writer.” In other words, although he may enjoy considerable popularity from the general public, it is other writers who speak with both envy and admiration of Woodrell’s writing skills. I count myself as one of them. Sitting before my computer, slowly creating a sentence only to delete it again and again ... striving for that elusive thing, a beautiful, balanced sentence that causes a reader to stop, smile and saw “Wow.” Daniel Woodrell is such a writer. With what appears to be an effortless ease, he creates sentences that are so unique that the reader forgets the plot of the story, and reads a single sentence again and again.


The wondrous short novel, The Maid’s Version, is an ideal vehicle for Woodrell. It is packed with colorful characters who grieve, suffer and die with a kind of admirable zest. Drunks and fools abound. Some are ruthless while others are good-natured and lovable: Strong-willed women who bear unrelenting grudges, children raised in stunning poverty, crazed preachers, bank robbers, petty criminals, gypsies and psychotics — all wind their way through this powerful tale of disaster in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, on the day that the Arbor Dance Hall exploded and burned, killing 42 people and maiming numerous others. (The disaster in Woodrell’s book is based on an actual dance hall explosion in West Plains, Missouri, in 1929; the reason for the explosion is still unknown.)

Like most Woodrell novels, The Maid’s Version is filled with dark humor. Especially notable is the author’s description of the body parts that literally rained on the West Table community.  Citizens were distressed to find fingers, teeth and feet in their gardens the following year and many home owners hesitated to clean their gutters since fragments of the victims frequently ended up there. Of course, all of this added to West Table’s folklore and is recounted by local historians to this day.

The two sisters at the heart of this novel — Alma and Rose — are striking opposites. Raised in poverty but in close proximity to people who have wealth and security, Alma marries a hopeless drunk named Buster and spends a lifetime as a housemaid. She is also filled with bitter reproaches and harbors resentments for alleged abuse and multitudes of imagined slights. Rose, the younger sister, has learned to survive by “pizzazz.” Specifically, “if men were smitten by her lyric eyes and fluctuating mounds and scented sashay, well, let them display their feelings in meaningful ways: clothes, hats, rent and a big weekend at the Peabody in Memphis.” 

While Alma slaves in the kitchens of the wealthy, stealing scraps of food to pass on to her three children, Rose is sequestered in a well-furnished room paid for by the banker, Arthur Glencross (the husband of Corinne Glencross, who is Alma’s employer). However, despite their differences, Alma and Rose are devoted sisters. In time, Alma reluctantly becomes a “go-between” for Rose and Arthur. However, since Rose and Alma never learn to read, they must enlist the services of their children to read Arthur’s love notes.

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Rose, the light-hearted temptress, is not only one of the casualties of the Arbor Dance Hall disaster; she is one of 20 victims who were burned and/or mutilated beyond recognition. As a consequence, her remains are in the mass grave beneath a 10-foot black angel.  However, the cause of Ruby’s death becomes an obsession for Alma. She is determined to know who was responsible for the explosion. Was it the gypsies who bitterly resented being driven from West Table? Was it Preacher Willard, who often harangued the “young, decadent fools” outside the Arbor Dance Hall telling them they were doomed because “they shook their bodies all about in thrall to impudent music and smoked cigarettes.” Willard often proclaimed “I’ll blow this place to Kingdom soon and drop these sinners into the boiling pitch! See how they dance then!”

Then there are the petty thieves who allegedly had plans to rob a safe by using and excess of explosives. Could it be that their plans miscarried with unforeseen results? Then, again, perhaps it was vengeful act carried out by the cuckold husband, Charles Lathrop who decided to kill his wife, her lover and himself in the explosion. And then, there is poor Arthur Glencross who has become slightly unhinged by Ruby’s decision to abandon him. After all, a number of witnesses met Arthur running away from the dance hall after the explosion when everyone else was running toward it.

In the final analysis, solving the mystery of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion may be irrelevant. Much of The Maid’s Version resembles a variation on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in which a small town’s dead speak from their graves and their combined stories shapes a poignant history of the town and its citizens. In this instance, Woodrell creates memorable portraits of a host of characters who came to the Arbor Dance Hall on the fateful night. Many were young were newly weds, full of promise and on the brink of life’s great adventure. As tragic as their demise may be, Woodrell stresses the singular fact that “they died dancing.”

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 164 pages.

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