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Originally published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 4:06 AM

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‘The Maid’s Version’: an Ozark quest for justice

Daniel Woodrell’s slim new novel, “The Maid’s Version,” is a luminous account of a long-ago accident that may have been murder, and of an aging Ozark woman’s quest for the truth.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Maid’s Version’

by Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown, 164 pp., $25

The center of Daniel Woodrell’s compact and soulful new novel is the story of a terrible incident: In 1929, an explosion in the dance hall of Alma Dunahew’s small Ozark town killed 42 people, including her beloved sister Ruby.

Ruby was a fast girl, carrying on a hotblooded affair with the head of the household where Alma was a maid. But then the explosion took Ruby away.

All this is reminiscence, told by Alma in the 1960s to her young grandson. Over the decades, Alma has pursued a quest so single-minded and seemingly deranged that she’s known as the town’s crazy woman. She believes that the long-ago tragedy was deliberate. Was it the preacher who railed against the sins of music and dancing? Criminals from St. Louis? Or maybe Ruby’s lover?

“The Maid’s Version” is a mystery, but that’s not really the point. The book’s worth is in its clear-eyed look at a long-gone era; at the meaning of family, justice and community; and at a poignant, hardscrabble way of life. The book’s worth is also in its luminous prose. Woodrell’s sentences bristle with finely tuned language and the almost biblical rhythms of his characters’ speech. The author, born and bred in the Ozarks, has remarked:

“Scholars in decades past [have] detected remnants of Elizabethan English still being spoken in the hills….[M]y old ones spoke a much more colorful language than I hear around me these days, more rooted in observation and drawn from common facts of daily life and more bluntly to the point.”

“The Maid’s Version” — based on a real incident — is his first book in seven years, following the equally brilliant “Winter’s Bone.” It’s further proof, as if we needed it, that Woodrell is a writer to cherish.

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