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.
The opening sentence and paragraph has you have an image strike up in your head, an archaic one full of mystery, a maid thee maid of this tale.
This tale brings you back in time as this wise and mystical lady, a grandma, tells of a tragedy, a fire.
She is a character that stays and reverberates in the tale.
That long lavish hair has a mystery behind it, as that of a long swirl of smoke rising to the skies from the dance-hall fire, a melancholy presence beheld in that hair. She pieces together and tells to the younger ones of the days preceding and the day itself of the fire and the one guilty of the heinous crime.
Daniel Woodrell hooks you in with the first paragraph and then on grips you masterly along the right pace no words wasted, he unravels and tells through this grandma Alma of the mystery of a once deadly dance-hall fire that had taken loved ones in this Ozraks town.
As the incident is unravelled the author has you immersed in the mystery behind the arsonist and the men and women of this Ozark vicinity.
This great tale takes me back to the great short by Faulkner ‘Barn Burning,’ along with Fahrenheit 451, these are three stories involving fire and burning that will survive the test of time and remain great works to be revisited and read again and again.
Daniel Woodrell is a formidable force in crafting vivid and memorable characters, steeped in history, Language, and setting.
He is the storyteller of the Ozaks just as the eminent William Faulkner was of the Yoknapatawpha County.
He has a distinctive prose and mastery with writing with language and certain denizens of a town or village like that of Faulkner and in Joyce’s dubliners he is for sure a people’s voice and storyteller.
Americas best kept secret unless you’ve seen the movie Winters Bone then you would have learned of the ways of this rural Shakespearian tragedy conjurer, a rural noir writer at it finest.
That opening paragraph.
“She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She’d sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light flowing in through both windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn’t walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head. Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself. She’d been born a farm girl, then served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn’t sleep past dawn to win a bet, and all the mornings I knew with her she’d sit in the first light and brush that witchy-long hair, brush it in sections, over and over, stroking hair that had scarcely been touched by scissors for decades, hair she would not part with despite the extravagance of time it required at each dawn. The hair was mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page.”
“Her name was Alma and she did not care to be called Grandma or Mamaw, and might loose a slap if addressed as Granny. She was lonely, old and proud, and I’d been sent from my river town near St. Louis by my dad as a gesture of reconciliation. She was glad I’d been sent and concerned that I have a good time, a memorable summer, but she was not naturally given to much frolic; the last hours of play she’d known had been before World War I, some game now vanished from childhood that involved a rolling wooden hoop and a short stick. She tried taking me for long walks about the town of West Table, going to Peoples Park so she could watch me splash in the pool, let me pull weeds in the garden and throw a baseball against the toolshed door. 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 didn’t say much. Then came a late afternoon when I was dramatically dispirited, moody and bored, foot idly kicking at things I’d been told not to kick, a sweltering day 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 she’d 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.”
“A near portion of the sky founted an orange brilliance in a risen tower, heat bellowing as flames freshened in the breeze and grew, the tow r of orange tilting, tossing about, and the sounds dancers let loose began to reach distant ears as anonymous wails and torture those nearby with their clarity of expression. There were those who claimed to have heard words of farewell offered by victims in the air or in the rubble, and some must be true accounts; so many citizens crawled into the flames to pull at blistered, smoking bodies that turned out to be people they knew, sisters, uncles, sons or pals. As with any catastrophe, the witness accounts immediately began to differ, as some saw dancers from blown three hundred feet toward the stars and spreading in a spatter of directions, while others saw them go no more than a hundred and fifty feet high, give or take, though all agreed that several fortunate souls were saved from death by the force of their throwing, landing beyond reach of the scorching, pelted with falling debris, yes, and damaged, but not roasted skinless, hairless, blackened and twisted on their bones.”
“East Side: dirt streets spread with oil to hold the dust low, home after home where the rough-lumbered walls have been deserted by paint and wasps haunt the eaves: a tin roof the sun beats on nakedly and sears but rainwater glides from smoothly and is gone in a slap into the dirt, it makes reddish mud in the front yard, side yard, backyard. Sidewalks are of little use, usefulness burst by the foraging roots of nearby trees, the wooden planks softened by age and slanted in two directions or more from the corruption in the middle. The sidewalk staves make excellent weapons when weapons are suddenly needed—he’s drunk again, that’s my bottle of milk, I just don’t want you around here no more, got that? Cats prowl between houses, dogs range about in the alleys, and a welter of children with bare feet play in wan, worn yards, beneath fading trees, playing with the terrible intensity of those who know already how quickly passing are their scant hours for fun.
Alma walked from the east each morning toward an important place, a house of prospering girth, brick walls sturdy as a vault, with a shaded veranda and heavy balustrade of purified white, a trefoil arch in the masonry over the doorway, large windows spanned by glass that rippled and bowed in the antique manner, bringing a winsome disarray to the eye from certain angles, the view of the world outside bent as the glass would have it bent, or stretched, or truncated. Town life was not so much run by the sun anymore but by the time displayed on clock faces, though Alma still answered to the early cock crows, roosters across town greeting dawn loudly but not in unison, somehow sensing daylight’s arrival with considerable variance of time, some now, some several minutes later. But she would always be at work early enough to make breakfast for Mr Glencross, a hearty eater—pork sausage, eggs and cream biscuits—then the children, picky and complaining, usually wanting any cereal she hadn’t cooked, or eggs if she’d made cereal, and finally Mrs Glencross, who asked only for cooled toast with no butter or jam and a steaming mug of English tea.”