Broken lives now rendered beautiful
The Maid’s Version By Daniel Woodrell Sceptre, 176pp, $26.99 UNTIL the success of his eighth work of fiction, Winter’s Bone (2006), and the film made of it, American writer Daniel Woodrell was regarded, ambivalently, as a cult novelist rather than of the mainstream.
Apart from his brilliant Bayou trilogy (three novels set in New Orleans featuring detective Rene Shade), Woodrell has written of the Ozarks, that ravined plateau, carved by water, that spreads from southern Missouri into Arkansas.
Born there, he came back decades later: “He lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line,’’ reads his publisher’s blurb. This statement resonates, as does Woodrell’s fiction, with promises of intimate disclosures, deep history, enticing strangeness. It is to this territory — its terrain, memories of the American Civil War and domestic violence, stories of resilience in the face of thwarted hope — that he has returned in his ninth novel, The Maid’s Version.
The tale is Alma Dunahew’s. She had “served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn’t sleep past dawn to win a bet’’. Her recollections are gathered by her grandson, Alex, who is frightened and fascinated by this woman “with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge’’.
What still torments Alma is the loss of her sister Ruby, along with more than 40 others, in the explosion and fire that destroyed the Arbor Dance Hall in West Table, Missouri, in 1929 during the bleak beginnings of the Depression. (The novel is based on a similar event that occurred the year before.) To Alex, Alma confides what she knows of the characters and possible causes of this small-town tragedy. In turn he will give us vignettes, bursting with singular details, of some of those who danced for the last time that night.
Woodrell had traversed the history of this region before. His second novel, the ambiguously titled Woe to Live On (1987) (filmed by Ang Lee in 1997 as Ride With the Devil), was set in the border states of Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War. The Kansas Irregulars were murderous guerillas — “we made trash of men and places’’ — who fought on the side of the Confederacy against federal forces. The killing is remorseless as each side pursues the other: “When all the tree were bare, we had trouble. We suffered fearful subtraction.’’
Woodrell’s handling of so much violence becomes the more memorable because those involved are preparing for their own ends. As one reflects, “Old man is not a way I ever figure to be.’’
It is of a broken world in modern times that Woodrell wrote in Winter’s Bone. From where teenager Ree Dolly stands at break of day (in the novel’s first sentence), she “smelled coming flurries and saw meat’’. Looking about, she notes where “three halt haggard houses formed a knelling rank on the far creekside’’.
There are Dunahews in this story too, and Langans, and Miltons (Catfish and Thump, Spider and Cotton among them), warring and sometimes inter-marrying clans who carry undying grievances. Ree has the care of her two younger brothers and her mother, of whom we have this harrowing detail: “Mum’s mind didn’t break loose and scatter to the high reeds until Ree was twelve.’’ Her father is a “crank cook’’, a maker and dealer of meth amphetamines, ruining his own life and those within what hardly still constitutes a community. Ree seeks news of him alive or dead. There is a mystery to be solved in this novel, as in The Maid’s Version.
What was the role in the explosion of the
March 15-16, 2014 banker, Arthur Glencross, whose statue has stood in the town since the 1960s? Alma is maid and cook for his family, including the wife Corinne (whose money Arthur married). She is “tiny and thin and pale as a cloud that might be parted by a jaundiced thought’’.
Ruby provides the sexual consolation that Glencross lacks within marriage. In the meantime, her sister Alma salvages scraps left over from the rich folks’ table to feed her own children at night. She is from one of those families that near the end of the 19th century moved to the Ozarks: “trudged towards factory money and landless days’’.
Within the novel’s brief compass, Woodrell conjures a whole, unstable society, from Sheriff Shot Adderley, “a country galoot from some helpless crossroads’’, to Preacher Willard, who accepted the Ten Commandments “as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn’t countenance was beyond memorisation’’.
Woodrell’s language echoes melodically with the vernacular of the Ozarks, traces of folk song, the cadences of the Bible. Sometimes he offers, seemingly with little effort, as if from an bottomless repository, pithy similes. This of Alma: “grief has chomped on her like wolves do a calf’’. At other times, sentences leisurely unspool: “The Missouri river floated sixty yards from the street, and there was a small crochety tavern on the corner.’’
On other occasions, eloquence seems to be misappropriated, as when one of the Irregulars in Woe to Live On, having witnessed the hanging of an innocent Dutchman (whose last act is to pray to Abraham Lincoln), shoots the son — or, as he has it, “booked the boy passage with his father”. This is prose so powerful as to represent not only a hard-won gift, but a sure temptation to the author who deploys it.
When Woe to Live On was republished in 2012, a quarter of a century after its first appearance, there was a foreword by Ron Rash, resident and laureate of the Appalachians rather than the Ozarks, but alive to the roots and the expressive medium of Woodrell’s rich and unsettling talents.
Each of them honours, and belongs within a great, predominantly male tradition of American writing that stretches back to Mark Twain and runs on through Willa Cather, William Faulkner, James Dickey, Larry McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy. From the vantage of their willed exile they have produced, down the generations, some of their country’s finest fiction and poetry. Peter Pierce edited the Cambridge History of Australian Literature.