October 2008

Moonshine brings misery to Virginia

By Matt Bondurant
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In the 1930s, Franklin County, Virginia, held a dubious distinction: nearly 100 percent of the population was illegally trading in liquor. Sherwood Anderson called it "the wettest section" of the United States, positing that even after Prohibition had ended, the moonshine continued to flow. These facts are the starting point for Matt Bondurant's gritty novel based on the lives of his grandfather and great – uncles, who were notorious bootleggers in Franklin and who also testified in the county's most infamous federal trial. For his fictionalized account, Bondurant listened to family stories and combed through archives, news clippings and court transcripts to get the details, but as he points out in the afterword, it was his job to explore the emotional truths behind the action.

Bondurant imagines that the devastating loss of their mother and sisters in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had great impact on the Bondurant sons – Howard, Forrest and Jack – who within a decade had become active in the illicit manufacture and transporting of liquor. The novel's action sweeps from a violent attack against Forrest in 1928 to an unsolved crime six years later when two men were hospitalized, one castrated, and the other with legs shattered from hip to ankle. The crime attracted the American writer Sherwood Anderson, who came to the area in hopes of writing an article about a mysterious female bootlegger and the upcoming federal trial. Stymied by the overwhelming silence of the community, Anderson took to the county roads, trying to find the Bondurant brothers and break the secrecy surrounding the violence.

Bondurant has immersed himself in the sights, smells and sounds of rural Virginia, and the novel has almost a documentary feel. His rich descriptions of the county landscapes and the hardscrabble lives of its inhabitants invoke the small – town streets and struggling characters of Anderson's best known novel, Winesburg, Ohio. At the same time, the action builds with the tension of a good thriller.

One caveat to the more sensitive reader: The Wettest County in the World is extremely graphic, with multiple descriptions of physical injury, brutality and sadistic behavior. There are tender moments, however, all the more lovely for their infrequency.

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