Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Wettest County in the World

And now for something a little different...

The publisher sent me a copy of this book for possible review, and after enjoying it, I decided it was worthy of a post here. This might not cross the radar of good beer fans, but it is related to a common theme on the Musings.

The Wettest County in the World is a historical novel set in Franklin County, Virginia during the late years of Prohibition. The author, Matt Bondurant, is the grandson of Jack Bondurant. Jack, along with his brothers Howard and Forrest were moonshiners in southwestern Virginia. Matt tells a compelling story of the Bondurants and their battles with law enforcement, and competing bootleggers.

Knifings, shootings, beatings, crooked politicians and law enforcement, the book is rife with turmoil. But it is also story of love and of trying to break out of the struggles of the time. What really struck me was the extreme to which the violence brought on by Prohibition was embedded in the lives of the characters in the book. It affected not just the bootleggers themselves, but the life of the town in which they lived. The business was an accepted, but unspoken part of the fabric of life. Reading this novel gives one a sense of just how much Prohibition adversely affected our Country.

The book tells the story not only of the Bondurant brothers, but that of Sherwood Anderson. Anderson was a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and later shunned by his peers. He travelled to Franklin, Virginia to write a magazine piece on the violence and corruption associated with the moonshine business. He would soon become part of the story himself. It was Anderson who deemed Franklin County "the wettest county in the world."

Matt Bonderant recalls visiting his grandfather, who went on to become a law-abiding citizen and spoke little about his past. He relates that much of the Bonderant family history was unknown, or at least unspoken by the Bondurants. The author researched newspaper articles and court transcripts to fill in the blanks left in family stories. Even given literary allowances, the author gives a riveting account of the people and the time and place in which they lived. If you are looking for a lively and enlightening read, get this book, pour yourself a nice bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, and settle in for a good Winter read.


  1. And I was about to comment that Dublin, Ireland must get more rain than anywhere (with the exception of M√ľnster, where I live now)!

    Sounds like a good book, and some lessons from history that shouldn't be forgotten. Draconian limiting of access to alcohol has never cured problems. But then, it is the doom of men that they forget

  2. Hi David,
    I worked down in that area for twelve years, 1973 to 1985, and can attest to that moonshine culture. Some was dreadful but some was nothing short of terrific. I have a very fond memory of an Emory & Henry College football game where a pear based bottle of homemade spirits was shared. I was every bit as good as a French l'ead d'vie - a cross between a calvados and a poire williams. The bottle came from Franklin County.
    Thanks for sharing the notes about the book. I may see about getting a copy for the library.

  3. A noble experiment indeed.

    It's hard to believe a prohibitionist party can still exist today, even on the margins.

  4. While I was in college in Franklin Co. back in 76/77 we did occasionally sample some of the local wares. The county was allegedly dry on Sunday because it gave a day for the shiners to sell their products. I recall the school having a meeting the very first day we arrived and the administration warning us of venturing off into the woods as they had even found stills on the school property. And they regaled us with stories of local judges having been known to have a still within sight of the courthouse in Rocky Mount. We were told to beware the barking dogs in the woods as they were left tied in the distilling area and would bark to alert the owner of the still if anyone approached. We were told of people who went hiking in the local mountains and woods whom never returned. I also recall being involved with a search party looking for the body of a drowned student when we came across an abandoned still on Philpott Lake. It was huge in comparison with the supposed "largest still ever taken out of the mountains" which they displayed at the local folk life festival every year. While I did not enjoy my two semesters in that place, I did enjoy the local “squeezins” on occasion.

    Chuck Triplett


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