Saturday, November 19, 2016

Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition

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Rating: 4 Stars

I picked up this little gem at one of our local museums, which currently is hosting an amazing exhibit on Prohibition. The museum is so incredible and never ceases to have me in awe over the various exhibits they bring in, but this Prohibition one is second only to the one a few years ago when they has Sue the T-Rex on display. I strongly urge you to check if any of your own local museums might be hosting this one in the future, it is so worth the time. It is called 'American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition'. You can see some details here about it at The Durham Museum's website if you are interested. And if you are here in Nebraska, then there really is no excuse, you must visit.

So, onto the book.

I admit I am kind of a dodo about Prohibition. I was (and kind of still am) always more interested in the gangster side of this era, (The Godfather I & II and The Untouchables are some of my favorite movies), so the laws and regulations and such is something I never paid a whole lot of attention to. So, thank goodness for books like these (and the awesome aforementioned exhibit) to supplement my education where it is lacking.

This is considered a YA/teen book, but I feel it still gave a very clear picture of the times, the laws, and the reasons for how and why Prohibition became such a force - that was totally impossible to actually regulate. One thing I am grateful for is that I finally know how the word teetotaler came about. I have a kind of obsession with unusual words, and I discovered that this one became a word because:

"As the temperance movement began to grow, societies in the 1830s began to discuss a more significant and difficult pledge: an agreement not to drink at all, total abstinence not just from hard liquors, but also from beer, cider, and wine. Those who agreed to love completely "dry" were noted with a "T" by their names on the society's membership rolls, displaying their "total" commitment. In time, those people were known as "teetotalers." " (page 19).

As an aside, I believe I have heard the word mispronounced more than a few times, thus leading to some confusion. When heard (albeit rarely - because seriously, when was the last time you heard this word?), it has been 'teetoler', so perhaps we could all do with a little brush-up on this one.

My eyes were really opened by this book, as I never before realized just how early the temperance movement started. Even the quote above is a good indicator, because even as far back as the 1830s, this movement was really gaining steam. I found the passages about the education of children in the dangers of alcohol to be highly interesting as well; it was something taught quite often in school and a subject that had its own textbooks dedicated to informing all of the dangers of alcohol. Of course there was some truth in the books, such as that it could damage your brain (though it conveniently left out how much consumption it would take to do so - or perhaps this was not something medically known at the time, which is more likely), it also warned children that alcohol would turn muscle into fat.

The book also touched on several figures at the time, all serving different capacities in regards to prohibition - from supporters, to enforcers of the law, to bootleggers. One such character whom I have great admiration for is Carry/Carrie Nation (her name is spelled differently depending on the book you are reading). It is not her views exactly that I align with - though I myself no longer drink, I am certainly in no place to tell others not to - but her courage and conviction in her purpose. Nation was willing to travel far and wide for her cause, willing to go to jail (22 times, to be exact), be mocked by the opposing side, and even attacked physically by those who disagreed with her. Now, to be fair, she was physically attacked due to her own method of campaigning for Prohibition - by using hatchets and bricks and whatever she could get her hands on in order to destroy bars and saloons. The owners of such establishments naturally did not take to kindly to that. Even so, Nation knew her purpose and believed in her God-given mission. It is unfortunate that she did not live to see Prohibition come into effect, having passed away in 1911.

Another aside: there is a portion of the exhibit dedicated to Carry Nation, and includes her portrait as well as one of her hatchets that she used to smash up the saloons she visited. It was very cool.


Carry and I, and her hatchet, at the Durham exhibit.


"Approvals rolled through one state after another. In January 1919, not quite thirteen months after Congress acted, Nebraska became the 36th state to vote for ratification, officially adding the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" (page 54). All I can say to that is, good going Nebraska.

I do say it somewhat cheekily, but in reality there was really no way that Prohibition was ever going to be successful. So much time and energy and manpower was spent trying to stop people from drinking, so many lives even lost in this battle (most notably in the gang wars. Some might say who cares if the gangsters were killing one another and that part may be true, but one also has to considered how many innocent bystanders were also killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time).

One issue I have with reading YA is, of course, that topics are somewhat less in-depth. This is to be expected, but my interest was piqued so many times in this short volume, only to have only a few details given and then the author moved on. It is an unfortunate side effect, and as you are probably aware, I do not have an issue with adding MORE books to my TBR list. It is just that sometimes I am impatient and want the information RIGHT NOW. This happened exactly in the section regarding Al Capone and the St Valentine's Day Massacre. The author stated at one point that "...new research indicates he (Capone) may not have been involved at all" (page 105). Again, I know it is a YA book, but this tantalizing bit surely deserved more than that vague statement, no? Even giving a basic run-down of this new research would have been appreciated, because even the notes section is silent about this little nugget of information. I would love to know what new evidence has been uncovered to indicate that Capone was not involved in the hit on Moran's men.

There were a lot of interesting facts to wrap up the text in the final chapter. I learned quite a bit more than I thought I would from this one - though again, keep in my mind that my knowledge is typically from the bootlegger point of view. I had never given much thought to Prohibition itself, so I did not realize it actually last quite a long time, 14 years to be exact. I also did not give much thought to the drinking age, which up until the 1980s was 18. I guess I just kind of assumed it had always been 21, since alcohol became legal again.

By page 128, the glossary begins, with words related to prohibition and temperance and such. This would definitely be beneficial for the younger readers which this book is aimed at, as they would be unfamiliar with many. I also liked that this edition comes with discussion questions, so it would be useful perhaps for high school history classes.

Overall I would definitely recommend this one to the audience for which it is intended - or those like me who now much more about the 'wet' side of the issue than the 'dry'.

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