The Ozark mountain town of West Plains, Mo., is the kind of town where a person can stand in his front yard and have a comfortable view of his past.
“My mom was actually born about 150 or 200 feet that way and my grandfather’s house is I guess 200 yards that way,” says Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, and most recently, The Maid’s Version.
Woodrell’s family — on both sides — goes back a long way in West Plains. His father moved away but Woodrell used to visit his grandparents here when he was a kid. After several years away from the region, Woodrell and his wife Katie decided about 20 years ago to move back to settle in his hometown. Both of them are writers, but most of Woodrell’s neighbors had never heard of him.
“When we first moved in here we had a neighbor next door for three years,” Woodrell says. “One night there was an ice storm and we got to stand around outside talking and I mentioned I was a writer. And he said. ‘Oh, that’s what you do! My God, I’ve been wondering … but I’d never ask a man what he did for a living.’”
Woodrell’s profile as a writer got a big boost in 2010 when his book Winter’s Bone was made into a film starring the then unknown Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a tough story about blood ties and the code of silence in the criminal underworld of the Ozarks. It was not the first time, nor the last, that Woodrell has taken readers into the dark corners of this world. Woodrell says for a long time he resisted coming back to the Ozarks to write.
“I just thought, no, I don’t see how this is going to work being a writer in the Ozarks,” he says with a laugh, “but once I got over that I realized I felt more kind of confidence to the stories I would tell about this region — as well as interest in the stories than I really did anywhere else.”
Around town, he occasionally runs into people who resemble the seedy characters he writes in his books. But he says the area feels safe.
“One of the interesting things about the Ozarks is you just about don’t have street crime,” Woodrell explains. “It’s strictly between people who know each other. It really isn’t indiscriminate; it’s kind of between themselves.”
In his latest book The Maid’s Version Woodrell moves into more personal territory with the fictional retelling of a tragedy that hit the town hard back in 1928. An explosion and fire at a dance hall left a good portion of the town’s young people dead or injured. There was an official investigation but they never pinned down a cause. Rumors were rampant and echoed down the decades.
“There were several gossipy possibilities of some kind of romance involved and a couple of things about people who were having business failures and these kinds of things,” says Woodrell. “There were rumors of seeing people running away. All these stories reached me.”
Many of the characters and events in The Maid’s Version closely follow Woodrell’s own family’s history. The fictional maid of the title is based on his own grandmother. Here’s his description of the maid in his story:
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.
Woodrell’s grandmother and mother had their own firm ideas of what really happened the night of the fire and some of those opinions made their way into the book. And because the disaster involved almost everyone in town, it gave Woodrell a way to write about the class boundaries that defined life in West Plains.
On the town’s main square Woodrell points out the spot where the dance hall once stood. “It was livelier then because everything was centered around the square,” he says. “You can see old pictures of a Saturday night on the square and it would have been packed.”
Around the corner is an old hardware store that is now an antique mall. The mall is owned by Toney Aid whose family has been living in West Plains since 1885. (Click here to listen to a 2008 interview with Aid on KSMU.) He and Woodrell fall into conversation with the ease of two people who have known each other a long time. Aid, who was born in 1950, says that when he was a teen, the dance hall fire was a “taboo” subject.
“There were a lot of people in town you couldn’t mention the explosion in front of,” he says. “… You just didn’t bring it up because there was too much tragedy, too many unanswered questions, they didn’t want to discuss it anymore.”
The town’s cemetery sits close to the rail road tracks. In Woodrell’s book there’s a statue in the cemetery that is a memorial to those who died in the fire. When the train goes by, the statue shakes and the people of the town say it is dancing. The real memorial is an oversized tombstone.
“This is the memorial to the unidentified dead,” Woodrell says. “Some families lost multiple members all in one swoop.”
Woodrell used to play in this cemetery when he visited his grandfather who lived across the street. And the mystery of what really happened that night — whether someone deliberately set off the explosion that killed so many — took hold of his imagination.
“I began to be aware that was — other than the civil war — one of the keystone events in the town history,” he says. Early on, he saw the potential for a book, but “I had to learn how to write first,” he says, laughing.
The Maid’s Versionis the most personal book Woodrell has ever written and now that it is done, he finds himself wondering what other tales of the Ozarks he has to tell.