A grandson becomes obsessed with his grandmother’s story about a small-town disaster from many years ago.
Set in the Ozarks, the book is inspired by history and is far less noir-tinged than the author's earlier works (The Outlaw Album, 2011, etc.). Loosely based on the real-life West Plains Dance Hall Explosion of 1928, it centers on Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a maid with three children in fictional West Table, Mo. After years of bitter silence, Alma has chosen to unburden her story on her grandson, Alek. “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,” Alek says. Alma’s younger sister Ruby may be a bit wayward, but Alma cherishes her. When Ruby is killed along with 42 other victims in the local Arbor Dance Hall, Alma is determined that the explosion was no accident. From these slim threads, Woodrell gives us many potential culprits, among them an Old Testament preacher and a gang of bank robbers, not to mention all the secrets and lies kept by the good people of any rural village. Short chapters reveal only the most telling and scarce details of Woodrell’s lineup of characters, lending the story a spare, bitter charm. This may be a minor work for this major American writer, but no craftsman toiling away in a workshop ever fashioned his wares so carefully.
A commanding fable about trespass and reconstruction from a titan of Southern fiction.