Twain, Eliot, Angelou … Woodrell?
November 11, 2013
For all his success – the positive reviews and appearances on bestseller lists and attention from Hollywood – Daniel Woodrell probably isn’t destined to become a staple of high school literature curriculums. Winter’s Bone was a great read, and maybe an even better movie, but it’s not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Still, the 60-year-old, Ozarks-obsessed author has carved out a place in Missouri’s rich literary history.
In his latest novel, The Maid’s Version, Woodrell draws from real-life tragedy in his hometown of West Plains to tell the story of a deadly, 1929 dance-hall fire and its impact on subsequent generations in fictional West Table, MO. It’s a concise 164 pages, but potent. His “economical prose,” reviewer Wendy Smith wrote in The Washington Post, “echoes with the flinty cadences of rural speech and the poetry of the Bible.”
She went on: “The Maid’s Version affirms Daniel Woodrell’s unique niche in American literature.”
In Missouri, the literary bar is set high. T.S. Eliot, William S. Burroughs, and Maya Anjelou were born in St. Louis, and Langston Hughes in Joplin. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and wrote in Mansfield.
And of course, there's the sainted Mark Twain. The onetime riverboat pilot was famously a product of his environment, treating the rest of the country to an account of life in Hannibal and along the Mississippi River – to the routines, idiosyncrasies, and most notably, the dialect of the people there.
Sound familiar? Woodrell uses much the same calling card, though his darker “country noir” – plumbing the deep-Ozarks culture – is distanced from Twain’s celebrated humor.
In reviewing Woodrell’s first short story collection, The Outlaw Album, for The New York Times in January 2012, author Donald Ray Pollack said, “Woodrell writes about violence and dark deeds better than almost anyone in America today, in compact, musical prose that doesn’t dwell on visceral detail.”
He does a state proud.
Excelsior Springs Branch