ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Writer Daniel Woodrell gained national attention when one of his books was turned into a popular movie. It was called "Winter's Bone." It told the story of an Ozark mountain girl navigating the dangerous world of local drug dealers. Well, now, Woodrell is out with a new book. "The Maid's Version" is also set in the Ozarks, but it takes us back to the Great Depression.
The book is loosely based on an actual event - a major fire in Woodrell's hometown. Ellah Allfrey has our review.
ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: "The Maid's Version" is a short book - only 164 pages - but there are lifetimes captured here. When the book begins, its young narrator, Alek, has been sent to spend the summer with his grandmother, Alma. She is eccentric. She has hair down to the floor, and memories that make her weep at night. "She was lonely, old and proud," Alek tells us.
Alma is scarred by a tragedy that happened in the summer of 1929 - a dance hall, an explosion, a fire. As she tells Alek her story, we learn how 42 dancers from the small corner of the Missouri Ozark had perished in an instant; waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames. We know the explosion is no accident; we learn that early on. But the real subject of the book isn't the mystery of who set the fire. It's Alma's life, and her grief because among the dead in the dance hall is her sister, Ruby, a woman of sass and vinegar. When the caskets are laid out in the school's gym, Alma has no way of knowing which one holds Ruby. And so in her sorrow, she treated every box as though her sister was inside - in parts or whole - and cried to the last.
Alma has no education, a drunken husband, and three hungry boys to feed. She makes her way, by turn, as a laundress, a cook, an all-purpose maid. We get glimpses of a hard life lived on the edge of destitution. These are the years of the Great Depression in rural America and while the town's banker manages to spare the fortunes of the most affluent citizens, no one is looking out for Alma.
The poor have to rely on each other. Injustices of class permeate almost every encounter in this community, and it's these kinds of injustices that allow the worst crimes to go unpunished. I had a hard time writing this review. The language is so beautiful, I wanted to quote pages of dialogue and description, to read them out loud.
But the best thing would be for you to read it yourself, soak up the nuance and cadence because as we're reminded, in the end, the lost do live on as long as there is someone there to hear their story and to tell it.
SIEGEL: The book is "The Maid's Version," by Daniel Woodrell. The reviewer was Ellah Allfrey, who is a contributor to NPR Books. For more updates on books and authors, you can like NPRBooks on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. That's @NPRBooks.
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