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The Maid's Version [Hardcover]

Daniel Woodrell
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Aug 2013

In 1929, an explosion at a dance hall in a Missouri town killed 42 people. Who was to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? Embittered gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident?

Alma Dunahew, whose scandalous younger sister was among the dead, believes she knows the answer - and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. But no one will listen to a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Maid to a prominent citizen, wife of a hopeless alcoholic, her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. It is only decades later that her grandson listens to her account and unearths the sorry truth.

With remarkable economy, Daniel Woodrell tells a richly layered story of passion, betrayal and vengeance and two families at opposite ends of the social scale connected down the generations by a festering secret. This is a stunning novel by a writer hailed by Roddy Doyle as 'one of the world's greatest novelists'.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Sceptre (15 Aug 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1444732838
  • ISBN-13: 978-1444732832
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14.2 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 167,283 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dan Woodrell comes from a long line of Ozarkers that stretch back before the Civil War. A high school dropout he joined the marine corps at 17. The military and he saw things differently. A period of post military drifting ended up at the University of Kansas and a Michener fellowship at the Iowa Writers School, where he was definitely the odd man out.

He is the author of eight novels including Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do, Ride With the Devil, Woe To Live On, Give Us A Kiss, Tomato Red and The Death Of Sweet Mister. He lives in West Plains, Missouri.

Critical Acclaim for Daniel Woodrell

"...Daniel Woodrell is a storyteller of bristling imagination and muscular prose, who uses the poetically profane language of the trailerpark to wicked effect..." - Sara Paretsky, Bizarre

"...Daniel Woodrell is stone brilliant ... a bayou Dutch Leonard steeped in rich Louisiana language..." - James Ellroy,

"...Daniel Woodrell is one of the most exciting writers I've discovered in a long time..." - Val McDermid, Manchester Evening News

Product Description


Daniel Woodrell is the American writer we increasingly look to for the latest urgent news on the American soul. The Maid's Version is a beautiful engine of a novel, whose cogs were not entirely made by human agency, one might hazard to say.

As regards the level of reading pleasure, the highest. As regards the level of literary achievement, the highest.

(Sebastian Barry, author of On Canaan's Side)

The Maid's Version is stunning. Daniel Woodrell writes flowing, cataclysmic prose with the irresistible aura of fate about it. (Sam Shepard)

Under the grisly, seductive, colloquial tone is a very unusual thing - a communitarian novel: a novel concerned with how we live - and sometimes die - together, how we share experiences through the rituals of speaking and writing, because that is the fundamental spirit and purpose of language. (Sarah Hall, Guardian)

Blends the folkloric with Southern gothic, historical recapitulation with fictional investigative journalism, all suffused in his matchless tenderness of feeling . . . In The Maid's Version, the oral and the poetic tangle and splice. Alma and Ruby are illiterate: the grandson's narration raises their tongue to occasional elegiac beauty. (Stevie Davies, Independent)

Skilfully interweaving two narratives, he gradually reveals the truth about a love affair in 1920s Missouri and an explosion in a dance hall that killed dozens of people. Woodrell's unique prose - laconic and yet . . . possessed of an offbeat lyricism all its own - is well suited to a story reminiscent of a folk tale passed down through the generations. (Nick Rennison, The Sunday Times)

Woodrell orchestrates a captivating, almost operatic narrative of how tragedy and grief can transform places and people . . . With an economical brilliance similar to that of Denis Johnson . . . Woodrell delivers a stunning story of one small town, and all of its profound complexities and opaque mysteries. (New York Times Book Review)

Just 164 pages. But Woodrell can pack more story, truth and human emotion into that space than most writers can in three times the pages . . . The Maid's Version is a superbly textured novel . . . Readers will be reminded once again why critics so often compare him to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. (Bruce DeSilva, Associated Press)

Woodrell's distinctive qualities are his very puckish humour and the way he drapes extravagantly writerly prose on the bones of a ferociously exciting whodunit . . . In Daniel Woodrell's West Table, neighbours and hearts come as crooked as can be and are all the more fascinating - and yes, loveable - for that. (Sam Leith, Literary Review)

Woodrell's evocative, lyrical ninth novel is deceptively brief and packs a shimmering, resonant, literary punch . . . From an economy of poetic prose springs forth an emotionally volcanic story of family, justice, and the everlasting power of the truth. (Publishers Weekly)

Woodrell's majestic gifts create an unforgettable impression of one woman's life played out against a horrific crime that was never solved but remained to haunt all involved. (Irish Times)

Woodrell's prose is breathlessly good. His sentences are pure music, with apocalyptic echoes, vividly descriptive but with a peculiarly archaic feel that marks them out as highly original . . . If a better novel is published this year then it will have to be something truly extraordinary. (Irish Examiner)

[He has] a genius for compression. The much-lauded Woodrellian prose continues to dazzle . . . In its fealty to the Athenian conception of tragedy - that collision of the accidental and ordained - The Maid's Version is one more resplendent trophy on the shelf of an American master. (William Giraldi, The Daily Beast)

I'd gladly sign a petition to see Mr. Woodrell included on any roll call of America's finest living writers (Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal)

The Maid's Version will sweep readers away . . . Woodrell knows how to command a reader's attention - not so much with plot twists, but with well-built sentences. They can sound almost biblical, if the Bible had been written in the Ozarks . . . Readers will simply fall into the story. (Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today)

In fewer than 200 pages, but with a richness of theme and character worthy of the weightiest Victorian novel, Woodrell brings West Table to life in the varied experiences of its sons and daughters . . . The Maid's Version affirms Daniel Woodrell's niche in American Literature. (Wendy Smith, Washington Post)

Gorgeously gritty . . . Inspired by true events, Daniel Woodrell's probing, powerful tenth work of fiction confirms his status as one of our finest little-known writers. (Leigh Haber, O, The Oprah Magazine)

Short chapters reveal only the most telling and scarce details of Woodrell's lineup of characters, lending the story a spare, bitter charm . . . No craftsman toiling away in a workshop ever fashioned his wares so carefully. A commanding fable about trespass and reconstruction from a titan of . . . fiction. (Kirkus (starred review))

Book Description

By the acclaimed author of Winter's Bone, the dark, glittering story of two families divided by class and linked by a mysterious tragedy.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel Of Distiction 5 Sep 2013
By ACB (swansea) TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
During the summer of 1965, 10 year old Alek, the primary narrator of the book, is staying with his grandmother Alma De Greer Dunahew. She is old and lonely. Alek describes her as having 'witchy hair...that belonged to a fairy tale of some sort and maybe not the happy kind'. She is the maid in the title having served a life of servitude. Her husband was a drop-down drunk. During a raging storm, Alma tells Alek of her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall Explosion of 1929. 42 dancers perished amongst a close community of 4,000. Alma's sister Ruby died in the disaster. She was a serial mistress not averse to breaking hearts.

Ruby is having an affair with Arthur Glencross, a man of influence. The circumstances of the dance hall explosion are undisclosed. Alma knows, Arthur knows so do a few witnesses. On a stormy night, Alma tells her story to Alek in the summer 1965. Alek and his father are at the Black Angel Memorial site celebrating the 1929 tragedy in 1989. Alek's father says to him, "Tell It. Go On and Tell It." Hence the novel and it's contents.

David Woodrell writes so much in a short book. He uses words sparingly and his prose is gorgeous. The characters of the novel and their predicament are brought alive by the author as the truth and intrigue of the tale gradually unravel. Secrecy, mystery, infidelity mixed with power and social class lead to an enthralling, remarkable and a first-class read.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Received it early this morning.

Just finished reading 'The Maid's Version'

....and it is fantastic!

Woodrell is a master at giving you a deep and involving story, keeping it concise and economical whilst writing beautifully about the darkest parts of being human.

Many lines and passages gave me the urge to want to read them out to whoever passed by for fear they don't know what they are missing.

Here's the story: A mysterious explosion at a dancehall in Missouri 1929 killed 42 people. Jump forward summer 1965 and an old lady, Alma, tells her grandson, Alek, the story of her sister Ruby who was one of those burnt to death at the dancehall. 36 years on and suspicions follow her like a shadow and her sister's role in the incident, suspicions that have cost her dearly. Jump decades after '65 to a creepy memorial service at a monument to the dancehall dead where Alek is encouraged, finally, to divulge what his grandmother told him all those years ago.

I'm so impressed. Like 'Winter's Bone' he has delivered a story in only 170 odd pages that is so rich and layered, involving and beautifully told that you'd struggle finding other writers who do the same and do it well.

I could not put the book down, hence why I finished it so fast.

If you like McCarthy, William Gay, Tom Franklin or Donald Ray Pollock then this will satisfy you to no end.

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Beautifully written, with a gorgeous (and gritty) sense of place. Not so much a whodunit, howdunnit or whydunnit, than a meditation on whether guilt can ever be truly expiated. A slight book but leaves a lot to think about.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
There is no sense in me being another reviewer to go on and on about how wonderful a writer Daniel Woodrell is; he just simply is; brilliant and unlike any other modern author. This is a short book with a simple plot of an old lady retelling an horrific story from the past to her 12-year-old grandson one summer when he stays with her for the first time. The main narrator is the grandson, grown up, but the book uses one of my favourite devices and that is to have a variety of narrators tell the story from their own point of view. With the lyrical writing and the fine story this is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. We get a look inside the lives of ordinary people; the huge mountains made out of small dilemmas; the backstabbing, the affairs, the jealousy, the gossip, all the ugly things that run rampant in a very small community. But it is rather ironic how the town's greatest disaster is a secret so simple no one can uncover it. A good book, but honestly I must say I felt disappointed at the end. I've read every novel of Woodrell's and this just isn't up to his finest work. I love the multiple narrators but no one character stands out. I usually fall in love with Woodrell's characters but there wasn't enough book here for the story.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  163 reviews
94 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a little gem; will be on my best of the year list 4 Sep 2013
By sb-lynn - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.

This amazing little book has as its centerpiece the mystery surrounding an explosion at a small-town Missouri dance hall back in 1929. Forty-two people were killed and many more injured. One of those killed was a young woman named Ruby, the beloved younger sister of one of the book's main characters, Alma Dunahew. We know that Ruby was having affairs with married men and we know that the town had problems with mobsters, gypsies and even a vengeful preacher who warned against dancing and partying. What we don't know until the end is just who was really to blame.

When the book first starts out we are introduced to Alma from the viewpoint of her 12 year old grandson who is briefly staying with her. From the opening line we see Alma brushing her floor-length grey/white hair and her grandson is a little apprehensive of her. We find out that Alma has had an incredibly difficult life and that she had been estranged for a while from her own son's life. The reasons for that become clear as we read on.

The story jumps around and is told from the viewpoints of many different characters at different points in time. The relevance of some of these characters can become clear at the end of their little chapter but often we don't really understand their importance until later on. For example we may meet someone in one vignette and come to briefly know them and then find out they were killed at the dance hall; and in that way we truly feel the extent of the tragedy and loss. Many of the characters we meet are central to the mystery of what happened and to our understanding of how the characters evolved into the people they are. Their histories and backstories are often brutal and heartbreaking.

In this way we almost see the story as bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and it is only at the end when we have a complete picture of what went on.

I loved this book. Loved it. And if you've ever read this author before you know how beautifully he writes and how the reader gets such a feel and understanding of both place and time from the little vignettes and stories he weaves throughout the the book.

The writing and the descriptions are just out of this world wonderful. Here's just a taste:

"Alma was of a height that earned no description save 'regular,' sturdy in her legs and chest, and her hair was an ordinary who-gives-a-hoot brown, with finger waves above the ears that always collapsed into messy curls as the day went along."


"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."

Highly recommended. Just beautifully written from the opening line to the satisfying, chilling conclusion. I will be thinking about this book for a long time.
39 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "What'd did you learn today, Alek, and what use will you make of it." 3 Sep 2013
By Amelia Gremelspacher - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This lovely book is breathtaking in its unadorned and precise description of a small Ozark town which had been the scene of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929. Our narrator Alek had been sent to live with his grandmother Alma at the age of 12 in order to reconcile the rift between her and his father. Over that summer, Alek learns the stories of the people in Alma's world that filled her summer forty years ago. He grows to know his grandmother as she is today, and how she was during that summer leading up to the fire. Starting from the first page, he observes a woman of precise habits whose hair is so long she must braid it to keep it off the floor. Their relationship deepens as the summer progresses and Alma talks to him about that terrible night. She has suffered mightily since then, and she had lost her way. For a time, "she was not currently within her skin, and they weren't sure who or what was.". The mystery of the explosion had never been solved, but Alma has her own beliefs on the solution. Her belief is conveyed with some tension that informs the depth of the mystery. As they grow closer, she challenges him to relate what he has learned. I think she half hoped he would intuit the truth as she saw it. Alma is one of my favorite characters in recent history, and she talks to her grandson and during the flashbacks, I came to admire this woman with many dimensions. She has braved the difficult task of seeing within herself, and has born that price of bearing what she sees.

Each person in this book is revealed in short vignettes that interact in a dance that soon appears to have been almost inevitable. Alma had known them all in her role as a servant from a poor family. Working in the big house, her observations bridge the gap in social status, and reveals the threads that bind everyone. At times the book returns to days of 1960's, and we are able to learn the harvest of those past events in the lives of Alma and her family. . This is a short book, but conveys a complex picture of a world at a certain time and place, and the echoes that reverberate for years. The setting is painted in terms that bring the reader directly to that world. With simple words, the town is portrayed exactly. As the book progresses, the actual explosion appears in the minds and actions of the characters in a way that sears the readers as well. The prose is so well crafted that I cannot point to one misplaced word. Woodrell has used his writing to weave a web of reality based on a true event. I have seldom been this impressed with a book, and fervently hope you will share it with me.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes knowing the truth is more painful than not knowing... 24 Sep 2013
By Larry Hoffer - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Certain authors have a language and a style all their own. I don't mean an invented language, like Tolkien, Pratchett, or Rowling, but rather a way of capturing language that is unique to them. Daniel Woodrell, who has written books such as Winter's Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister is one of those authors. His ability to capture the language of people in the Ozarks makes his books feel tremendously authentic and even more captivating.

In 1929, the small community of West Table, Missouri was rocked by a fire and explosion in the Arbor Dance Hall, which killed 42 people. As with any tragedy, immediately talk turned to the causes of this disaster and who was responsible. Was it caused by the local gypsies? Mobsters from St. Louis on the hunt for one of their own? The frenzy unleashed by a preacher who lashed out at the immoral behavior of the dancers and partiers? Or was it simply a tragic accident?

Alma DeGeer Dunahew knows what caused the tragedy that killed her flirtatious sister, Ruby. But Alma, who works as a maid for one of West Table's most prominent families, is viewed as crazy by the town citizens, many of whom don't really want to know what happened that night, or are willing to turn a blind eye to the truth if it protects the town from the effects of the Great Depression. Her need to speak the truth leads her to lose her job, her mind, and estranges her from one of her sons, John Paul.

Years later, Alma finally has the opportunity to tell her story from start to finish, to her grandson, Alek. And the story, populated with mobsters, hobos, preachers, local businessmen, criminals, and lawmen, not to mention brief glimpses of many of those who were killed or injured in the fire, is a complicated one, but one that utterly captures the Dunahew family's struggles. Alma encourages Alek to "Tell it. Go on and tell it." And tell it he does.

The Maid's Version is a short book--only about 170 pages--but it is packed with a powerful narrative and so many colorful characters, it's difficult to remember who everyone is. Woodrell's storytelling ability is in fine form, as is his evocative language, and while this book may not be as strong as some of his previous ones, it's still a tremendously interesting and, ultimately, tragic story. It does take some concentrating, however, because the book meanders back and forth between 1929 and 1963, when Alek is, essentially, hearing Alma's story.

Daniel Woodrell is an exceptional writer. While this book doesn't have the tension or violence of some of his other books, Alma's story is very much worth hearing.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, American tale 19 Oct 2013
By Teresa L. Wilson - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This wonderful, gorgeous, hypnotizing novel is like an epic American poem on par with Homer or Virgil. I was just blown away by this master storyteller and linguistic magician. Not only did I have to reread sections to fully understand their meaning, I reread the whole book, which is short, but jam-packed, just to savor the language. Not a strike of the pen was wasted. Every event is full of portent, each character a revelation. Please read this book. Unique and so enjoyable.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really Captured the People and the Place 25 Dec 2013
By Timothy Haugh - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Woodrell is another one of those authors who I am sad to say it’s taken me too long to come to. Not out of any conscious avoidance but simply because there’s too much out there to read and too much must always be left out. Still, I read this one and it’s amazingly good.

The plot of this brief novel is fairly straightforward: in the small town of West Table, Missouri, over forty people are killed in an explosion at the local dance hall in 1929. The question is, who caused it? Was it an accident or willful mass murder?

Mr. Woodrell manages the plot well. He gives us hints and drips of information through various eyes before revealing the none-too-obvious nor completely unexpected truth in the last few pages; however, the brilliance of this work is the people and place he captures so well. Having grown up in southern Illinois and spent many a day in the Ozarks, I was amazed at how real these people were. I could hear the voices of people I knew in these characters—rural survivors of the Depression with their own moral codes and small town ways, both good and bad.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a novel this much. I am definitely going to have to go back and look at some of Mr. Woodrell’s other work.
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