The American master's first novel since Winter's Bone (2006) tells of a deadly dance hall fire and its impact over several generations.
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.
©2013 Daniel Woodrell (P)2013 Hachette Audio
"If William Faulkner lived in the Ozark Mountains today and wrote short, powerful novels set in that little-understood, much-maligned swath of rural America, he might sound a lot like Daniel Woodrell." (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
"In prose both taut and lyrical, Winter's Bone vividly evokes the spirit of one little woman warrior." (Edna O'Brien)
Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
I liked this book. A lot. But it’s a challenge to explain why because there were things about it that were hard to like. The writing is outstanding. Woodrell uses economy and eloquence in a narrative filled with secrets, resentment, and sometimes, when least expected, dry dark humor. (His description of the “accidental” demise of a well hated citizen is priceless.) He has written characters vividly without letting us really get to know any of them well. It’s this arm’s length distance that makes it hard to become fully immersed in the story. But looking back I suspect that was the author’s intention. Alma, telling her version of the story, is herself hard to get close to – prickly, resentful, suspicious, and unyielding. Her distance from those she is describing keeps us at that same distance.
Alternating first person narration through Alma and her grandson, we learn from Alma’s memory what lead up to and followed the fire that killed 42 people, including her wayward but beloved sister. No one is ever called to account, and Alma's need for justice solidifies to a hard stone of anger towards those in the small town who are content to just let it go, ostracizing the troublemakers who refuse to do so. The author often switches to third person voice to relay biographical vignettes of other fire victims, and of characters whose roles remain unclear until the end when all the pieces are connected.
These narrative switchbacks caused a bit of auditory whiplash, making me hit the 30 second back-up many times when normal attention to traffic distracted me just enough to miss who was speaking and who was being spoken of. The print version would have made it easy see when a new narrative section was starting - it was not so clear just by listening. I have reluctantly dropped a star from the overall experience because those frequent back-ups took me out of the story just a little too often. But I can also happily give 5 stars to the story for the astounding writing quality and a tale that has stuck with me for the two days since I finished it. This may be a good Audible/Kindle combination for members who use both.
So hooked by audio that I have to read books aloud. *If my reviews help, please let me know.
I'm a fan of Woodrell's work; Winter's Bone is one of the best books I've read. His writing captures a depth of character that makes them hard to leave on the page, and he has an eye for those odd but gritty details that make his stories so hard-edged and memorable. Reading his work, I am often reminded of one of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy. Both of them have a unique way of using words that makes the language seem a little more vivid and crisp, the situations a little more unpredictable and precarious. The Maid's Version is no exception, and condenses a big story into a little time losing none of the power.
I'll offer this advice of what not to do reading this short tale...stop/start several times. The story is a flowing tale shared by Alma to her grandson; there isn't a lot of character development or set up, so the flow is really important for the overall impact. It might just have been me...but some things just don't lend themselves to stopping and starting. I was hooked and moving along with baited breath, but once I had to stop, it was hard to get back in step with the same fluid intensity. The writing was as always, a treat, but Woodrell deserves better and so do readers. If this was a story that interested me as much as the writing fed me -- I'd go into seclusion and start again, but admit that even with the interruptions and the high praise the book is getting, I don't think it did, in my case. My advice would be to commit to the 4 hours for the full listening enjoyment and judge for yourself.
This is my first review to write after listening to over 100 audiobooks, but I felt it needed to be written. I enjoyed the author's imagery and poetry-like descriptions, but the story was too "all over the place". The vignettes, while independently interesting, were not in any sort of reasonable order (at least none that I could discern from listening to the audiobook) which made following the story difficult. They jumped randomly from World War I to the 1960s and everywhere in between. While I don't always mind this in certain books or films, it just didn't work in this book.
Also, from the descriptions I read, both Audible and in other publications, I believed that this book was written as a mystery. It read more like a bunch of disjointed barely-connected stories, none of which piqued my interest as to who (if anybody) might have committed the deed in question. I'm extremely glad it was only four hours long, as I would not have been happy to have wasted any more of my time than that listening to this book.
I will probably listen to Winter's Bone in the future, just because it has been so well received.
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