The Scots-Irish settlers of North America, whose historical path led from the medieval English-Scottish border through Ulster in Northern Ireland, carried a similar culture wherever they went across our nation. According to former US senator Jim Webb, in his popular history “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,’’ this people gave us Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, and Ronald Reagan, plus country music and the backbone of our military tradition (not to mention a lot of cannon fodder for our wars). They remain a clannish group, rooted in countryside or mountains, intransigently independent, suspicious of organized authority, and dangerously ready to kill or die over a point of honor. I am one of them, by birth, and so is Daniel Woodrell.
Scots-Irish descendants furnished large casts of characters to writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Erskine Caldwell. Southern writers were the first to give the group a major literary celebration, but these people are not exclusively Southern; they can still be found, with all their virtues and faults preserved as if in amber, wherever rural poverty persists — in the rural Maine of Carolyn Chute’s fine novels, for example. Woodrell has found them in the Ozarks.
The plot of “The Maid’s Version’’ is a mystery wrapped in decades of obscure muttering: Who or what was responsible for a 1929 explosion and fire that destroyed the Arbor Dance Hall in the small town of West Table, Mo., killing 42 people and decimating the youth of an entire community? Only one person knows for sure, “Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with her pinched hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge.”
Woodrell (in this case at least) writes a kind of Faulkner Lite. Ambitious, orotund Faulknerese, often hard to take in the original, is also trying here: “A memory that had come to mind so often and that he mentioned many times to Corinne during dwindling, melancholy hours, was about how close he’d come to being murdered for love, actually murdered for love — that when James Dunahew stabbed him, he recognized how deeply bound together he’d become with this family from a shack, as James wore a shirt he knew, he was being stabbed to death for reasons rooted in love by someone wearing his own old shirt, a shirt he’d given Buster, who he’d failed so, and as the boy sat atop him and the blade went in again, their two breaths were joined as a cloud in the cold air between them and hung there, just hung there, a cloud.”
And so on. On the other hand, Woodrell, like Faulkner, is very good at capturing the poetry of common speech, whether in folk aphorisms — “A wolf will always look to the woods, no matter what you feed it” — or ordinary dialogue: “That there’s way too big of a rock to dislodge with your head, you know, and walk away after.” Sometimes, as in this key description of Alma, he can blend the two levels of language with great success: “the big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and that sustains us.”
That’s more than promising, but this book can’t quite get its promise off the ground, in part because, despite a huge cast and multigenerational scope, it’s less than 200 pages long, and suffocated in multiple narrative filters (another Faulknerian device). Alma, the “maid” of the title, supposedly owns the story, but we get it told to us by her grandson, a character so thinly developed one can hardly find his name in the text. How he can know what he reports of this twice-told tale is a puzzle, for the narrative draws intimate details from the minds of the principals to which even Alma wouldn’t have access, as well as including numerous short sketches of people killed in the Arbor House fire; we are invited to know and care about them all.
Woodrell evokes a convincing sense of this small but complex community, with its marriages and romances across the right and wrong sides of tracks, its hidden vices and grotesqueries, and equally secret heroism. But there are just too many characters and story lines for him to deliver completely on any of them at the short length he has chosen. Plot solutions, when they finally come, seem perfunctory, and require the importation of gangsters from St. Louis to serve as dei ex machina.
Woodrell’s best-known work to date is probably the novel “Winter’s Bone,’’ itself best known as the wonderful film that launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence, among other things. If “The Maid’s Version’’ reads like instant movie mix, it may be just as good when it’s stirred and baked. A lot of simplification inevitably happens in a film script. This story may find its true, sustaining heart on the screen.Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent book is “The Color of Night.’’ He teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at email@example.com.