Friday, July 29, 2016

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

The year is 1965 and twelve year old Alek Dunahew has been sent to spend the summer with his grandmother, Alma DeGeer Dunahew in the small rural town, West Table, Missouri.  Tucked in the Ozarks, West Table is the kind of small rural town where everyone knows everyone and its hard to keep a secret.  Life is often hard and jobs are scarce.  There is food enough but it's plain food, vegetables from the garden and meat from animals you raised yourself or spent time hunting and fishing.

Alma isn't a kind, cuddly grandmother.  She is a small, rangy woman, full of old grievances and sure that those around her are no better than they should be.  Alma has spent time in the mental hospital a few times, once for several years.  The mother of three boys, she is the only one left in West Table and her boys are long gone.  She is stuck in the past and determined to make sure Alek knows about the great wrong done to their family.

Alma's mind is focused on 1929.  That was when her beloved sister, Ruby, was one of the forty-two people killed in a dance hall explosion and fire.  That kind of tragedy in a small town is overwhelming.  Everyone knew someone and most had a relative who died.  What caused the fire?  Was it an accident?  Were the mobsters who visited town after dark involved or the preacher who stood outside predicting hellfire for those who spent their evenings dancing and flirting?  Was it something darker?  Over the summer, Alma tells the story slowly to Alek, letting him in on the town's secrets she knows and the way she believes the fire happened.  Is she right or has grief unhinged her on this subject?  Each reader must make their own determination.

Daniel Woodrell is considered one of the South's greatest writers.  He has won awards such as the 2014 Heartland Award in fiction and had a book made into a movie.  He coined the phrase 'country noir' to describe the kind of stories he tells, of small town America where life is not rosy and no one's secrets are that hidden.  The unwinding of Alma's secrets leaves an impression in a reader's mind that won't soon be forgotten.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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