The Maid's Version: A Novel
The Maid's Version: A Novel
Daniel Woodrell
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
176 pp., $25.00

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J. Mark Bertrand

The Maid's Version

The Bruegel of the Ozarks paints an American danse macabre.

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She lived scared and angry, a life full of permanent grievances, sharp animosities and cold memories for all who'd 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.

What sustains Alma despite her many losses is the knowledge that what people think happened at the Arbor Dance Hall isn't what really took place. She has her own version of the truth, which is for her grandson (who takes after her in many ways) to share.

Daniel Woodrell says that The Maid's Version is the most autobiographical of his books, the closest he's come to writing about about his own family. (In fact, he sees it as a tribute to his grandmothers.) Alma and Ruby in particular are vividly realized characters who jump off the page. The story flows like a jigsaw of recollection, zooming forward and back in time, recalling both victims and survivors, chronicling the accidents of chance that determined who would live and who would die. In the hands of another writer, this multi-generational saga might run to a thousand pages, but Woodrell fits it into nearly a tenth of that space, compressing the action into sinuous, winding sentences, packing chapters of observation into the course of a few lines. A writer's writer, Woodrell's prose offers a master class in the craft.

Strange as it sounds, The Maid's Version is a slender epic. Set in a world of hobos and stick-up artists, moonshine hayseeds and film noir tough guys, the Bruegel of the Ozarks paints an American danse macabre in which some serfs, like Ruby and John Paul, make peace with the lords of the manor, burying their grievances to get ahead, while others, like Alma, find themselves backed into a corner with no choice but to fight the losing battle, nursing grudges and keeping scores they can never hope to settle.

The Weekly Standard calls J. Mark Bertrand "a major crime-fiction talent." He is the author of three novels about Houston homicide detective Roland March, the latest of which, Nothing to Hide, was published in 2012. Last year, he reviewed Daniel Woodrell's short story collection The Oulaw's Album for Books & Culture. He blogs at

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