Daniel Woodrell's The Maid's Version is an excellent short novel centering on a dance hall fire.
The West Hall, Missouri, Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929 killed 42 dancers.
A maid, Alma DeGreer Dunahew, tells her grandson her version of the story. She tells about her family, her sister Ruby, and then Alma's husband and sons.
The story flashes back and forth in time. We see events from several points of view. And we come to understand one of the central points of the book—The wealthy and powerful exploit the poor. It has always been that way.
At one point, the book says about the county sheriff, Sheriff Shot Adderly--“About half of what a sheriff does is to bend laws a little to keep the right people out of jail...” The right people include many, rich and poor, but Adderly has less choice with the rich.
It doesn't matter that someone murdered Alma's sister in the fire, taking 41 others with her. The murderer is a person who has done and continues to do good things for West Hall.
It doesn't matter that the murders drove Alma insane or that they later cost her a son.
It doesn't matter that a modicum of justice occurs when someone kills a local hellfire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher.
The whole town knows what happened, and the whole town ignores the truth.
Alma survives by being a maid, working for those who have more than she does (when she can get a job). She knows these people intimately. But finally, she is reduced to telling her grandson the maid’s version of the murder story. She ends up hoping her grandson will pass her story along.
Woodrell writes lyrically. His words are often poetic.
I had a special interest in this book. I was born on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. My wife and I once lived in one portion of the Ozarks. We have known people from small towns much like West Hall.
I learned of this book from a review in the Kansas City Star. I am glad I did.
QUOTATIONS FROM THE MAID'S VERSION--
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, a true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us.
Preacher Willard accepted the Ten Commandments as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn't countenance was beyond memorization.
Alma was fond of many country sayings and she said of favorite here: "A wolf will always look to the woods, no matter what you feed it."