Nobody ever figures out how or why or who, if there is a who: A packed dance hall in a small Ozarks town blows sky high one night in 1929.
By EDWARD M. EVELD
The Kansas City Star
In The Maids Version, author Daniel Woodrell is concerned with the mystery of it but more than that.
In his ninth novel and the first since his blockbuster Winters Bone, Woodrell shakes down the enormous tragedy to lay bare the injustices and secrets of a southern Missouri small town. The Maids Version is the current selection of the FYI Book Club.
The explosion fells 42 townspeople and damages many, perhaps none more than Alma DeGeer Dunahew. She is a maid to the privileged in the fictional West Table, Mo., a mother of three hungry boys, plenty proud and plenty bitter in a place with deep economic clefts in close proximity.
That such devastation in a town of 4,000 goes unaddressed year after year fuels Almas anger and her gaping distress at losing her sister Ruby. Decades later, when her grandson comes to visit for the summer, she decides he needs to know what she knows.
Here are edited excerpts from our recent conversation with the author.
Q. Tell about the genesis of your novel. This terrible event, or one like it, actually happened. There was a dance hall explosion in your southwest Missouri town of West Plains.
A. Yes, and this novel is not meant to be a re-creation or investigation of the real thing. Bond Hall did explode here in 1928, and it has never been explained to everyones satisfaction. The area was left with rumors and innuendos and one or two little facts.
For the purposes of the book, its the Arbor Dance Hall, and Alma comes to believe she has intuited more or less what happened. I purposely didnt call it the Bond Dance Hall because Im writing a novel, and there are local sensitivities Im alert to. I dont need to trample on them, and I didnt.
Why did you put the explosion at 1929 in the book instead of 1928? Why stick with this time period at all?
That seemed like a fateful year, even though the stock market crash took a few years to ripple through to these off-the-beaten-path places. And I wanted it to be clear that I was making up a novel. I have my theories about what happened here, but I have more than one, so theyre no good.
Ive always been interested in the time period. I grew up around my grandparents, and so many of their stories ended up being from about 1927 to 1945. The Depression is rich in stories.
When Flannery OConnor was asked why she wrote about poor people, she said it was because they had the cushion removed from their lives, so the bumps hit harder and you could see them. The Depression did that for so many families, removed all the cushion.
Such a huge tragedy in so small a place. In terms of impact, the real-life event must have been as long-lasting as you depict.
Im told that for the first 10 or 15 years, a lot of those families were still in a kind of unfocused shock. They would have loved to have someone to hold to account for it, but there wasnt. I read interviews with families, some from as late as the 1990s, and they say it was still on their minds. Of course, early on people were actually physically scarred in ways you couldnt avoid seeing.
I do think that if some sort of explanation had been arrived at, something that people could swallow, it might not have lingered with so much interest.
The edges feel very sharp in your portrait of the town, the gulf between the well-off and the near-destitute, great meanness and great generosity on all sides. Would it be different if the story were set today?
I think it would be roughly the same. There are always really good people and people whose first consideration goes more like, Is there anything in this for me? There isnt a time in history in which that isnt true. My wife and I have experienced it here, people who are so kind you think youre being put on, and the other side of the coin, too.
How did you go about creating Alma? I admire her, but Im not sure Id want to be around her much.
I based her to a large extent on my own grandmother, who like Alma got to go to school till the third grade and wasnt too bashful to brag about it, either. For a girl to go to school at all, in the rural Ozarks at that time, was kind of liberal.
Alma is a difficult person, but you might become a difficult person if you have to live the way she does. I think her heart is in the right place. She was devastated by the idea that her sister and the others could be killed in this explosion and there would be no response. Its a horrible feeling Im sure, to think that her sister wasnt that important to the community.
And she holds a grudge. Its a small place. If you think you knew someone had something to do with it, youre still going to see them around, to hear from them. So the tragedy never quite heals.
Rubys survival mechanism is to take gifts for services rendered, so to speak. You cant admire that exactly, but shes a personality youre drawn to.
I had been reading about some historical events in Kansas City, to try to trace a real person from the time, and I found an account of a Ruby who was listed as a waitress. The author of the article noted that waitress was often a euphemism for something else.
Ruby is even less educated than her sister. She just happens to be quite attractive and begins to realize thats her bonus from nature.
Theres a mystery in the book, a big one, but other concerns also drive the novel. Why not have someone, a detective or someone, piecing the clues together?
I wasnt trying to make it a puzzle you had to assemble. I thought most people would sense somehow where it was going. But getting there was the thing.
My mom is a true classic mystery nut, so Ive read plenty of those growing up. She read the book and said, Its no mystery. No, its not Agatha Christie. French director Robert Bresson said in a discussion about storytelling that sometimes he wanted you to know what was going on at the beginning so you could give your full attention to how we end up at that place.
Theres been mention of the vignettes you included in the book, very short tales of how some of the dancers came to be at the hall that night, almost their life stories in brief. Why that technique?
I tried to write this book once and I put it away. Originally I probably had twice as many people who went to the dance than I ended up with here. The story got out of focus. I like compression thats how I read and thats how I like to write. So I wanted to focus on the maids version and to keep these stories as quick reflections.
It made sense to me. I thought, how many people have I met or casually know and I just have one or two facts about them? So-and-so was a really good ballplayer. She could play the piano. I really wanted to focus on the things that are remembered about people.
And those quick hits and the white space they created tend to build energy for me, for my taste.
The language, both the narrative and the Ozarks dialogue, is rich to the point of being intricate, but always poetic. How did you decide on the language style?
Each book requires a slightly different voice and music. I recognize this book has some complicated syntax at times, but the lyricism of it just seemed unavoidable to me. That was just the way I was feeling it.
From Daniel Woodrells The Maids Version, published by Little, Brown and Co. When young Alek Dunahew visits his grandmother Alma, she spills her tales of a small Ozarks town, its unexplained tragedy and the life and loss of her sister Ruby.
It was the summer of 1965, but she still did not have a television, only a radio that seemed always to be announcing livestock prices and yield estimates. There was a twang stretching every word Alma said, but for days and days she didnt say much. Then came a late afternoon when I was dramatically dispirited, moody and bored, foot idly kicking at things Id been told not to kick, a sweltering sky that turned dark as a sinister storm settled overhead, and we sat together on her small porch in a strong wind to watch those vivid actions break across the sky. Storm clouds were scored by bright lightning, and thunder boomed. Her dress was flapping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames, and why it happened. This was more like it an excitement of fire, so many fallen, so many suspects, so few facts, a great crime or colossal accident, an ongoing mystery she thought shed solved. I knew this was a story my dad did not want me to hear from her lips, as it was a main source of their feud, so I was tickled and keen to hear more, more, and then more. Dozens were left maimed, broken in their parts, scorched until skin melted from bones. The screams from the rubble and flames never faded from the ears of those who heard them, the cries of burning neighbors, friends, lovers, and kinfolk like my great-aunt Ruby. So many young dead or ruined from a town of only four thousand raised a shocked, grievous howling for justice. Suspicions were given voice, threats shouted, mobs gathered, but there was no obvious target for all the summoned fury. Suspects and possible explanations for the blast were so numerous and diverse, unlinked by convincing evidence, that the public investigation spun feebly in a wide, sputtering circle, then was quietly closed. No one was ever officially charged nor punished, and the twenty-eight unidentified dead were buried together beneath a monumental angel that stood ten feet tall and slowly turned black during year after year of cold and hot and slapping rain.
Alma had been allowed to stay in school to the completion of third grade, then was sent to work some years in her daddys fields before finding her way to town and becoming a laundress, a cook, an all-purpose maid. She lost two sons along the way, her husband, her sister, and earned but little, always one dropped dish and a loud reprimand from complete and utter poverty. She lived scared and angry, a life full of permanent grievances, sharp animosities and cold memories for all whod ever crossed us, any of us, ever. Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, was the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us.
It was years before I learned to love her.
To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.