I always read Daniel Woodrell’s books with a good deal of interest, since my grandmother was from the Missouri Ozark area, and visiting her was a yearly event of my childhood. This slim book was of particular interest, since it was based on a very specific historical incident, the tragic dance hall fire that occurred in 1928 in West Plains, Mo. (West Table in the book). What (or who) caused the fire is still unclear. Woodrell doesn’t care. He takes this straw of confusion and spins, if not gold, at least silver in his wholly fictional rendering of the event.
The narrator is the grandson of the maid of all work of the title, and the story moves between her version of what happened and the intersecting lives of other town folk who died in or were otherwise affected by the fire. Her backstory is the real event of the book. The characters are fully realized and for the most part realistic, although Woodrell is never above a certain amount of novelistic exaggeration when it comes to characters. And yes, Woodrell presents us with a fictional perpetrator, so no annoying unsolved ending.
As always, his writing is top-notch, but, oddly, in spite of being based on an actual event, this story is not as gripping and realistic as his excellent Winter’s Bone. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth the couple of evenings that you will spend reading it! Recommended.