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The Maid’s Version, Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown and Company, September 3, 2013

Friday, May 25, 1979. Unfortunately, the details of that day had no choice but to stick. I was in the fifth grade, anxious for school to end and Memorial Day weekend’s symbolic summer kick-start to begin.

Then came the smoke.

Oakbrook School sat four, maybe five miles from the crash site, close enough for our classroom windows to reveal too much for impressionable eyes: a massive plume of black smoke was billowing up over the trees to the east, in the direction of my house. We did not know yet what happened but could see it was bad. Really bad. It was only moments after impact, still hours before local news stations would commandeer televisions to report on every devastating angle of the tragedy.

Saturday morning would offer no reprieve from the horror as newspapers lined with the largest headlines I had ever seen were tossed into driveways at dawn. Worst U.S. crash; 272 die at O’Hare. The grim total would later be raised to 273 (271 souls on board and 2 victims on the ground).

Decades removed, a previously insignificant number—191—is now anything but. I thought about Flight 191 recently while reading a novel about a different tragedy.

Her dress was flapping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames, and why it happened.

No matter how far from home it hits, real life horror has a way of announcing itself like nothing else, before hanging around unwanted and immovable. You did not need to live in Manhattan or D.C. or Shanksville to be branded for a lifetime by the disturbing events and sickening images of 9/11. Other times, horror leaves more regionalized scars. Our proximity to O’Hare as well as adjacency to the crash site made the horror of Flight 191 all the more jarring, all the more indelible, similar to the anguish that is unique to and that lingers over time and space surrounding Daniel Woodrell’s Missouri Ozarks.

Dozens were left maimed, broken in their parts, scorched until skin melted from bones. The screams from the rubble and flames never faded from the ears of those who heard them, the cries of burning neighbors, friends, lovers, and kinfolk like my great-aunt Ruby.

I will always remember the doomed American Airlines DC-10. But as I compare it to the Ozark Dance Hall explosion, I see a difference in the latter with respect to staying power. The ghosts of the dance hall were not afforded the chance to fade, remaining chained together with dark truths and unanswered questions. The passage of time could hardly snuff out the stench of burning flesh. The staying power is one reason a writer not even alive during the traumatic event was inspired enough to recreate its devastating reality in order to not only memorialize but also perhaps to step out at last from under its dark shadow.

With Flight 191, a path to understanding and closure surfaced quickly via the identification of a root cause: an engine fell off during takeoff. Why an engine would fall off at all is a separate thread. Answers help stabilize shock, engrave epitaphs, and seal tombs. My guess is that even in Chicago or the suburbs surrounding O’Hare airport, if you were not alive or of a minimum age in 1979 to experience it firsthand, chances are you may not even even know about the crash at all, even in postscript. This is not the case for Woodrell or the descendants in the Ozarks, in large part because their ancestors were granted no answers, no avenues to seek retribution, healing, or closure. Their hell was like a malignant tumor that grows and spreads. Their fury and grief was passed on, inherited by subsequent generations.

Suspicions were given voice, threats shouted, mobs gathered, but there was no obvious target for all the summoned fury.

It was the unsolved mystery aspect that first drew me to the novel. But what I found even more striking in Woodrell’s handling of it is the rich humanity he is able to infuse into the victims and survivors using prose that is sparse and controlled. Using very little, Woodrell is able to humanize the tragedy in snapshots that not only surprise in their weight but simultaneously spotlight life’s beautiful and fleeting moments in ways that have the power to knock the breath right out of you as if you yourself were one of the victims being detonated into oblivion in the night sky.

Miss Dimple Powell was fifteen years old and had never been to a dance. She’d prayed this night of music and boys would come before she wasted away from boredom, and had practiced dancing alone in her room for a full year now, her partner an overstuffed pillow with a dashing manner and a rather racy line of patter. His hair lay flat and glossy, shining like Valentino’s, and his hands sometimes roamed her back and she’d have to remind him she was fifteen and in no hurry, sir, but not mad, either. Her sister, July, and brother-in-law, Charles Lathrop, had gently hectored Mr. Powell, who had gotten accustomed to hearing the expectant sliding of waltzing feet from the floor above as he read the evening paper, until he said yes, finally, yes, and on dance night he gave Dimple a silent, rueful and humbled look over his spectacles as he watched her leaving his house so beautiful in a spotless new dress.

Another mystery unfolds: how an innocuous moment of watching a child walk out the door can later become, in retrospect, the last time a father will ever see his loving daughter alive. While all the moments find a way to matter, there is just no way to see them clearly in the sleight of hand.

He gave her a ring and a necklace with a heavy brooch that she wore more than she did the ring, because the ring was too valuable to risk losing and she had to remove it to play. The couple were to visit his mother’s people out at Rover, but the regular Arbor pianist had been stranded in Cape Girardeau, and Lucille reluctantly agreed to sit in with the house band so the dance could proceed and her friends could frolic. Ollie sat on a windowsill watching her with a smile that never wilted. The explosion sent them in different directions, and three days later he identified Lucille by the brooch that had burned deeply into her chest.

The ring was simply too precious to wear and had to be removed in order to play the piano. If only she could have died with it on. I am not entirely sure how this would ease us into the image of a body blown to bits but in some way, it would have meant everything for that ring to be on her finger. Everything forever.

But the misfit couple wanted to do what others do, go out on a beautiful Saturday night and dance in a crowd, and Joe and Molly did, they did dance, danced as long as the music lasted and still are said to be cutting a rug among friends whenever that Black Angel shimmies.