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October 2016: Historical Fiction > The Maid's Version--Daniel Woodrell (4 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments I read three 2013 books for September's tag, but failed to get reviews out on time. This one fits as well under October's tag.

This read fulfills my growing fandom over Woodrell’s writing. With two favorable reads to lead me on (“Winter’s Bone” and “Woe to Live On”), I welcome again his crisp prose, ear for regional dialog, and affinity for a plot that puts questing personalities into challenges of morality and courage. As with the earlier two, I appreciate the rural places of the Missouri Ozarks region he portrays so vividly based on having grown up nearby in the rural Oklahoma Ozark fringes. I can’t yet speak to Woodrell’s earlier, reportedly noirish, detective fiction, but he appears to be applying this craft to the characters in this tale, a boy and his great aunt obsessed with resolving the mystery of a community tragedy from decades before in 1929.

The family and community impacts of a tragic explosion at a town dance is powerfully woven into the story 12-year old Alek draws out of his great aunt Alma, whose sister Ruby was killed along with 41 others. He is placed with her for a summer in the 60s and becomes captivated with Alma’s reconstruction of the disaster and then the events leading toward and emerging from it. She can’t help weighing of all the potential perpetrators of the unsolved crime that continues to haunt and weigh upon the community.

Alma then worked as a maid for a prominent household and had taken her sister in to save her from their brutal father with her family. She is stuck in a hardscrabble life of raising two sons with an absentee alcoholic husband and can’t help being vicariously lifting up with the love of life shown by her teenaged sister, Ruby. But Ruby’s particular love of men and her propensity to change models when it suited her worried Alma at the time and continues to prey in her imagination as tied up with the event somehow. Like the town itself, she needs a personal face for the evil behind the blasted life she has been living, not the ominous shadow of some kind of cosmic or divine retribution. And in Alma’s courageous walk on the edge of madness for so long Alek finds something that helps him begin to grow up and surmount the impact of festering secrets held by his own father surrounding these events.

She lived scared and angry, a life full of permanent grievances, sharp animosities and cold memories for all who’d ever crossed us, any of us, ever. Alma DeGreer Dunahew, with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us.
It was years before I learned to love her.

I soon grew to respect for Alma’s resilience and empathize with her hunger for some resolution. Trapdoors in Woodrell’s narrative transport you like a time machine back to Alma and Ruby’s struggle together in poverty while those with more power fiddled in conspicuous consumption on the brink of conflagration. The kind of rocks Alma and Alek turn over in their slow review end up creating a profile of weaknesses in the heart of the whole community, including mad men seeking attention, religious leaders calling down vengeance for pervasive sinning, corrupt law enforcement in the pockets of the wealthy, criminal networks spilling out into rural areas from St. Louis, and specific men driven by jealousy.

So many families were devastated by the losses, and Alma sustained other major subsequent losses in her life. But Ruby’s death put her way off course. She represented something special to all those she touched with her life, felt even by Alma’s young children and Alek’s father for a time when he was in their household:

They loved to hug her and feel her arms around their shoulders in return, squeezing them near to smell her perfume, her lipstick, her smoky breath so exciting as it burst into their faces. Ruby’s style, her looks, her sass and vinegar gave them the urge to fight for more, more of everything they could imagine, against anybody, whenever she was near.

This story captivated me with its focus on a tragic event and its ripples and resonance in the lives of a boy near the beginning of his life, an old woman near the end of hers, and a rural community at a particular point in history. Although inspired from a similar historical incident in 1928, the Arbor Dance Hall explosion in West Plains, this gem of a story was spun largely out of Woodrell’s fertile imagination.

message 2: by Charlie (new)

Charlie  Ravioli (charlie_ravioli) | 393 comments Great review. I've never read Woodrell but have this book and will move it up on my list based on your liking. Thx as always for your insight.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Charlie wrote: "Great review. I've never read Woodrell but have this book and will move it up on my list based on your liking. Thx as always for your insight."

Thanks for the response and willingness to give it a whirl. After reading so many massive tomes recently, it was refreshing to read a tale with a clear focus and minimal "look at me" postmodernist play.

message 4: by Tracy (new)

Tracy (tstan) | 1182 comments I love Woodrell's sentences- he crafts them so beautifully! Both this book and Winter's Bone are very good. Nice review!

message 5: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 5499 comments Woodrell is an author I have yet to explore and it seems as if I need to.

message 6: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Booknblues wrote: "Woodrell is an author I have yet to explore and it seems as if I need to."

I think you would best appreciate Woe to Live On in light of a kid's growing up compromised by the Civil War as in Coal Black Horse. Less sentimental. (In that vein, Elkhorn Tavern by Doug Jones dips into the same themes).

message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Tracy wrote: "I love Woodrell's sentences- he crafts them so beautifully! Both this book and Winter's Bone are very good. Nice review!"

Thanks a million. I suppose this could make a decent movie too.

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