The novel “The Flower Sisters” explores the West Plains dance hall explosion

The novel “The Flower Sisters” explores the West Plains dance hall explosion

A new historical fiction novel from a Missouri author explores the mystery of a catastrophic event that damaged the West Plains community nearly a century ago.

“The Flower Sisters,” by St. Louis-based author Michelle Collins Anderson, was released April 23. The 368-page novel is Anderson’s first and is a tribute to her hometown of West Plains, where she spent the first 17 years of her life.

Published by New York-based Kensington Publishing Corp., “The Flower Sisters” follows the story of Daisy Flowers, a 15-year-old girl who will spend the summer of 1978 with her grandmother Rose in the rural town of Possum Flats. Missouri. Instead of working at her grandmother’s funeral home, Flowers interns at the newspaper ‘The Picayune’. As Flowers browses through the newspaper’s archives, she learns about a tragic event that took place in Possum Flats fifty years earlier. This event is based on the Bond Dance Hall explosion that occurred in West Plains on April 13, 1928.

As she learns more about the explosion, Flowers begins to recognize the names of several people killed in the incident, including Violet, her grandmother’s twin brother. But when Flowers starts asking questions, both to the community and to her grandmother, she encounters resistance. Nobody wants to talk.

With the help of her paperboy Joe, Flowers begins to discover some answers.

“What she discovers is that there are a lot of people in Possum Flats who are not exactly who or what they appear to be,” Anderson told the News-Leader.

A novel that has been in the works for thirteen years

Despite growing up in West Plains, Anderson said she was unfamiliar with the Bond Dance Hall Explosion until adulthood. In 2011, she received a book from her father called ‘The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion’. The 160-page nonfiction, written by West Plains native Lin Waterhouse, is considered the first complete account of the explosion and its lasting impact on the community.

“I read this book with utter amazement that I could have grown up in a town that size (the population of West Plains was about 12,500 in 2022) and never heard of that event,” Anderson said.

Perhaps what caught Anderson’s attention most was that the cause of the explosion had never been determined.

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“The story of the explosion has never been solved and for a writer that is just asking to be written,” she said.

Around this time, Anderson completed her master’s degree in fiction at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She began working on the novel during a “free” semester, but it was several years, long after she graduated in 2013, before she began dedicating time to writing. In 2021, she began looking for agents interested in helping sell the story.

Drawing inspiration from real life people, experiences

Anderson said she decided to write a historical fiction novel because she was not interested in being responsible for conveying real-life details of the event. Instead, she drew inspiration from those affected by the explosion and from her own upbringing in West Plains.

“One of my good friends from high school… she lost her great-grandmother in the explosion, so she shared that with me. The more we talked, I realized that her great-grandmother was the director of a funeral home in West. Plains,” Anderson said. “I had read the nonfiction account of the people who had died and encountered that woman in that profession, and I knew I had to process it.”

In the book, Anderson’s friend’s great-grandmother is reflected in the character of Rose, Daisy’s grandmother. She is the director of Flowers Funeral Home, which Daisy does not want to work at during her summer vacation.

While Daisy is not a direct translation of Anderson, the author does connect some of her own life experiences to the character’s story, particularly her experiences in The Picayune.

In high school, Anderson interned for a summer at the West Plains Daily Quill, the West Plains newspaper.

“I had her do a lot of the things I learned. For example, the very first thing you learn is how to write an obituary,” Anderson said. “And she also gets a camera and she goes out and takes all kinds of pictures, just like I did of prize animals at the fair and strange vegetables that people found in their gardens. I always got the call to do those things as Good.”

Ultimately, Anderson said she hopes “The Flower Sisters” keeps the memory of the Bond Dance Hall Explosion alive and introduces the event to the “wider world.”

What was the Bond Dance Hall explosion?

Much of the Bond Dance Hall Explosion, recorded in West Plains history, remains a mystery. On the evening of April 13, 1928, the Bond Dance Hall, located in downtown West Plains, was set on fire when an explosion erupted from the Wiser Motor Co. garage located just below. A total of 39 people were killed in the explosion, although 20 of them were unidentifiable.

The ballroom was a popular venue in West Plains. It was considered a “central hub for social gatherings, providing space for dancing, music and joyful camaraderie among the city’s younger population,” according to the West Plains Daily Quill.

The explosion that occurred on April 13, 1928 was anything but expected. In addition to the ballroom and garage, two other nearby brick buildings were destroyed in the explosion.

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At the time, almost everyone in West Plains was affected by the explosion, whether it was because they lost a family member or close friend, or because they knew someone who did.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the explosion is that its cause remains a mystery. According to the West Plains Daily Quill, initial speculation focused on the contents of the garage, including old vehicles and gasoline. Despite research, a definitive cause has never been determined.

Where can you buy ‘De Bloemenzusters’?

Anderson will visit Springfield twice this month to read from “The Flower Sisters” and sign books:

  • 6:30 PM Thursday, May 16 at Barnes & Noble.
  • 2 p.m. Saturday, May 18 at BookMarx.

If you can’t attend one of these events and are interested in purchasing a copy of ‘The Flower Sisters’, you can purchase the novel online:

Greta Cross is the Trending Topics reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on X and Instagram @gretacrossphoto. Story idea? Email her at [email protected].