Title: The Maid’s Version
Author: Daniel Woodrell
No. of Pages: 176
Origins: Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: 3 September 2013
Bottom Line: Poetic but ultimately disappointing
“Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident?
Alma thinks she knows the answer-and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. Her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. By telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some solace-and peace for her sister. He is advised to ‘Tell it. Go on and tell it’ – tell the story of his family’s struggles, suspicions, secrets, and triumphs.”
Thoughts: Mr. Woodrell has become famous for his lyrical narrative and clear insight into the hearts and minds of Ozark natives and the small towns that dot the region. In this regard, The Maid’s Version is no different. Told from multiple narrator perspectives, each scene provides new understanding of the town dynamic and of the various relationships that make up Alma’s frame of reference. His words are indeed poetic, embodying a folksiness that feels authentic and using quaint turns of phrase that sound well-used if unfamiliar. His delightful descriptions and prosaic phrasing creates surprisingly intimate glimpses into the lives of the West Table citizens as he pieces together the events that led up to that fateful night.
No amount of poetic verbiage can help a weak story though, and unfortunately, The Maid’s Version is weak. The premise of the story is that Alma has already shared her theories with her grandson, but it is only years later when she finally grants him permission to share them with the world. The problem lies in the fact that there are scenes described that neither Alma nor her grandson would know or would have ever been able to discover from characters’ points of view that Alma did not know existed. If this really were supposed to be Alma’s theories as told by her grandson, the use of other narrators seems misplaced. In addition, the grandson plays a bit role even though he is supposed to be the primary narrator. With the addition of an eclectic cast of characters, including the sudden and inexplicable appearance of mobsters, the truth behind the night’s events eventually becomes clear even if the clarity comes with a good deal of skepticism at how convenient the resolution is.
The Maid’s Version is too ambitious for its size. There are simply too many narrators, too many characters, and too many theories for the mystery to resolve itself satisfactorily within its scant 200 pages. Had Mr. Woodrell taken more space to fully flesh out his characters and more thoroughly explain the relationships which provides the story its drama, one can envision a much more successful story. As it remains, readers get glimpses into the myriad characters’ lives and must discern what is and what is not relevant to solving the mystery of the dance hall explosion. The resolution of the mystery is sudden and follows a different trajectory than the rest of the novel, making it surprisingly anti-climactic as well. The entire story is a disappointing example of the cliché about biting off more than one can chew, as the rushed ending and convenient plot twists indicate a novel that should have been longer than it was and a story that was meant to be more involved than its pages would allow.