by Michelle Collins Anderson

Writers look in all sorts of places for inspiration — whether in nature, a stack of grandma’s old love letters, a cross-country family vacation or just an incident discussed around the dinner table. My debut novel, The Flower Sisters, was literally inspired by “a blast from the past!”

I grew up in the small Ozarks town of West Plains, Missouri, about ten miles north of the Arkansas line. But until a dozen years ago, I had never heard of the Bond Dance Hall explosion — a blast and subsequent fire that occurred on Friday night, April 13, 1928, killing 39 people and injuring many others.

My father, who was a high school history teacher with a farm on the side (as much as a hundred-and-fifty-head cattle operation can be considered “on the side!”), sent me a book entitled The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion by Lin Waterhouse, published in 2010. I was living in Liberty, Missouri at the time — and I was fascinated! How could I have lived in West Plains for seventeen years, in a family that had roots back a hundred years, and not have heard a word about this horrifying event?

At the time of the explosion, West Plains had a population of approximately 3,500 people, so almost everyone knew someone who was killed that night. And of course, many of the dead were young people who would have been the next generation of town leaders, farmers, lawyers, educators and businesspeople. It was devastating.

Take this survivor account:

“I was just watching them dance. The floor lifted upward with us. Women screamed, men prayed. Then, we were blinded by the flash of the fire and began falling downward. Many dancers went down clasping their partners tightly in their arms. I never will forget the horrible looks on their faces.

Finally, the seemingly endless fall came to an end. We had reached the bottom and all around us bricks and heavy timbers were falling; flames were crawling around us. We were helpless, held down by the weight of the debris. My legs were pinned down by a girder. I had been struck on the head by falling materials. I just resigned myself to what was coming when I looked a little way over and saw a girl hanging over a piece of timber.

My eyes were on her when the flames struck her. I saw her face and heard her scream. “My God,” I thought. I can’t die like that.” — Roy Crain, drugstore clerk and survivor of the Bond Dance Hall explosion, West Plains Gazette, April 19, 1928

The blast itself originated in the bottom of the two-story brick building on East Main Street that had an auto shop on the ground floor and the dance hall upstairs on the second. It was just after 11 p.m. on that fateful night, when the band was playing the song “At Sundown” written by Walter Donaldson, when the explosion happened. The sound and tremors from enormous blast were heard and felt as far away as Thayer, Missouri, some thirty miles south of West Plains.

But the repercussions of the explosion weren’t contained to this radius around the blast. In the days afterwards, condolences and best wishes poured in from across the globe as the news made headlines the world over — from Canberra, Australia to London, England.

The cause was never determined.

There were definitely theories — from an intentional scheme to collect insurance money to a gasoline fume buildup in the auto shop to a truck loaded with dynamite and blasting caps that may have been stored in the shop overnight. But this was 1928, well before the research capabilities of crime shows like “CSI.” Similarly, because DNA testing did not yet exist, the victims’ remains weren’t all able to be identified. This necessitated the large mass gravesite in West Plains Oak Lawn Cemetery, where twenty identical coffins were buried with the remains of the unidentified dead. The donated land, named “God’s acre,” was shaded by large oak trees and later marked by huge granite memorial that lists the victims’ names and dates of birth — and the single common date of death.

Of course, there was another theory: the explosion was the direct act of a vengeful God who disapproved of the young people dancing that night. This was a deeply religious community in the middle of the Bible belt, and some citizens felt that the sins of the irreverent or immoral were being punished by the fiery hell of the blast. Most religious leaders of the town, however, disagreed.

But no matter the cause of the explosion, the result was a deep sorrow that carried through the community for years. Survivors and their families often refused to talk about it at all: it was too painful.

So many factors — the sheer number of lives lost, the close-knit town, the undetermined cause of the explosion, the hush and mystery that surrounded the event in the ensuing decades — inspired me as a writer. This “blast from the past” happened in my hometown and it was a story that I knew I had to tell.

I hope The Flower Sisters — even though it’s a fictionalized version of the West Plains Dance Hall explosion story — offers readers and my community some hope, healing and a little bit of humor, too.

Drawing on the little-known true story of one tragic night at an Ozarks dance hall in the author’s Missouri hometown, this beautifully written, endearingly nostalgic novel picks up 50 years later for a folksy, character-driven portrayal of small-town life, split second decisions, and the ways family secrets reverberate through generations.

From the new Fannie Flagg of the Ozarks, a richly-woven story of family, forgiveness, and reinvention for readers of Kristy Woodson Harvey, Donna Everhart, Sue Monk Kidd, Jeannette Walls, and Rita Mae Brown…

“Anderson weaves a rich and poignant tale of a small Ozarks town’s factual tragedy, its generational secrets and the juxtapose of searching and belonging. Vivid and evocative, this is a debut to savor.” —Kim Michele Richardson, New York Times bestselling author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek series

Daisy Flowers is fifteen in 1978 when her free-spirited mother dumps her in Possum Flats, Missouri. It’s a town that sounds like roadkill and, in Daisy’s eyes, is every bit as dead. Sentenced to spend the summer living with her grandmother, the wry and irreverent town mortician, Daisy draws the line at working for the family business, Flowers Funeral Home. Instead, she maneuvers her way into an internship at the local newspaper where, sorting through the basement archives, she learns of a mysterious tragedy from fifty years earlier…

On a sweltering, terrible night in 1928, an explosion at the local dance hall left dozens of young people dead, shocking and scarring a town that still doesn’t know how or why it happened. Listed among the victims is a name that’s surprisingly familiar to Daisy, revealing an irresistible family connection to this long-ago accident.

Obsessed with investigating the horrors and heroes of that night, Daisy soon discovers Possum Flats holds a multitude of secrets for a small town. And hardly anyone who remembers the tragedy is happy to have some teenaged hippie asking questions about it – not the fire-and-brimstone preacher who found his calling that tragic night; not the fed-up police chief; not the mayor’s widow or his mistress; not even Daisy’s own grandmother, a woman who’s never been afraid to raise eyebrows in the past, whether it’s for something she’s worn, sworn, or done for a living.

Some secrets are guarded by the living, while others are kept by the dead, but as buried truths gradually come into the light, they’ll force a reckoning at last.

Inspired by the true story of the Bond Dance Hall explosion, a tragedy that took place in the author’s hometown of West Plains, Missouri on April 13, 1928.

The cause of the blast has never been determined.