Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Read more...
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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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-06-24
- Reviewer: Staff
Woodrell’s (Winter’s Bone) evocative, lyrical ninth novel is deceptively brief and packs a shimmering, resonant, literary punch. In a grand “gesture of reconciliation” from his father, young Alek is sent to West Table, Mo., to spend the summer of 1965 with his grandmother, Alma Dunahew, a hardworking maid to a wealthy local. The bad blood between Alek’s father and Alma stems from her opinion of what transpired just before the 1929 Arbor Dance Hall explosion, a tragedy that claimed her outspoken sister Ruby and 41 others. Who was responsible? Gypsies who threatened the townsfolk? The preacher who believed “vil music, evil feet” deserved to be silenced forever? Or was it Ruby’s controversial new (married) beau? Sections about some of those who perished fall between chapters detailing an engaging yarn of hidden secrets, but also one that fast-forwards decades to find an adult Alek addressing a memorial vigil, finally getting the chance to talk about what Alma confided to her grandson during the pivotal summer they spent together. From an economy of poetic prose springs forth an emotionally volcanic story of family, justice, and the everlasting power of the truth. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Sept. 3)
Still burning, generations later
Added to the list of things one shouldn’t judge a book by: page count. Daniel Woodrell’s ninth novel, and his first since 2006’s Winter’s Bone (which became an award-winning feature film in 2010), is less than 200 pages long. But thanks to Woodrell’s rich storytelling, this slim novel has the feel of an epic.
The story centers on a real-life incident—the explosion of a Missouri dance hall in 1929—reimagined as fiction. One by one, in alternating and sometimes overlapping scenes, those who survived the blast recall those who were lost in it. Adding another few layers of intrigue and perspective, the novel is narrated by Alek, a young man remembering the story as he heard it one summer in 1965 from his grandmother, Alma, whose sister was among those killed in the disaster.
Alma fascinates and scares her grandson equally: She’s a stern, reserved woman with a “pinched, hostile nature,” “dark obsessions” and a “primal need for revenge,” Alek says. Her story is essentially a ghost story, and it has a strong hold on the boy. She doles it out slowly, in bits and pieces, with many satisfying digressions. “She would at times leave the public horror and give me her quiet account of the sad and criminal love affair that took her sister Ruby away from us all,” Alek recalls.
The novel has the feel of someone going through an old family photo album, dredging up odd facts and anecdotes about this or that person. The mystery at the center of this storytelling mosaic is, of course, just what caused the dance hall to explode: Who is responsible? And why? And how is it that the truth has not come out, even after all these years? By the time we learn the answer, or at least Alma’s answer, it feels somehow both inevitable and entirely unexpected.
But it’s not the mystery that keeps the story moving. It’s the gossip. As ever, Woodrell is a master of exposing to daylight the darkest corners of the human psyche. His miniature portraits of the local characters, even those that are only a page or two long, make the town vivid and real, and the result is a larger sense of loss. We know these people, not just the main players but the rest of the town; any one of them could have been at the heart of the story. This small book holds a wide world.