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YALSA Nonfiction, Part Four: Bootleg

Between now and the announcement of the winner on January 23, I’m taking a closer look at the five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. Check out part one, part two, and part three. Today I’ll look at Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal.

The title of this fabulous book (despite being one of my favorite of the year) is actually very misleading. Only three of the book’s nine chapters actually deal with the time period of prohibition. Instead, Blumenthal makes the wise decision to tell the entire story: from a brief history of drinking in America, through the founding of the temperance movement, the acrimonious public debates about alcohol (including the famous saloon smashings of Carrie Nation), the shockingly fast adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, and finally the “murder, moonshine, and lawless[ness]” brought on by prohibition.

Blumenthal tells this story with remarkable facility, helping the reader keep straight the various different players involved, and loading her story with anecdotes of real people. Famous characters–such as Morris Sheppard, the senator who introduced the Prohibition amendment; Carrie Nation, of ax-wielding fame; and of course Al Capone–all come to vivid life. But so do such minor figures as Federal agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, or Leroy Ostransky, who worked with his family making and selling moonshine from a frighteningly young age.

The title is also misleading because by playing up the crime of the era, it reinforces the received wisdom that Prohibition was a failed experiment that created more problems than it solved. In fact, the text of the book takes a much more nuanced position, and I think that all of the book’s most impressive traits come from Blumenthal’s willingness to depart from this conventional viewpoint.

First, there is her sensitive treatment of the origins of the temperance movement. For those who see Prohibition as a ridiculous failure, it is hard to make sense of why America passed an amendment to the Constitution banning alcohol. Blumenthal reminds us of the urgency and righteous energy of the temperance movement. The fact, for example, that the temperance movement was begun as an offshoot of the women’s rights movement, is crucial to understanding both the reasons for the movement itself (drunken, abusive husbands and fathers) and the attractions of the movement (an already mobilized set of passionate, well-spoken women). Blumenthal is scrupulously even-handed in her treatment of these debates, giving full airing to the arguments of both sides.  

The second area where this nuanced view comes into play is in the final chapter, explicitly asking whether Prohibition was a success. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to Prohibition as anything other than an abject failure, so it was very instructive to learn about just how long-lasting its effects on American drinking habits were. It seems that the vast majority of Americans really did follow the law, and it took decades after repeal for alcohol consumption to return to the level it was at before Prohibition.  

What I was probably most interested in, though, was how utterly modern the debates over alcohol sounded. Although Blumenthal again makes a very wise decision in avoiding this comparison, the arguments she sets out could be used almost word for word to describe the contemporary debate over the “war on drugs.” Issues of very legitimate harms done both by and to users of drugs vs. the also very real harms of gangs, overcrowded prisons, and the hazards of attempting moral legislation, are just a few of the subjects Blumenthal broaches which the thoughtful reader might apply to the war on drugs. But by leaving this comparison to the reader, she allows her subject to stand on its own without getting bogged down in contemporary controversy.

I’ve seen a number of people discussing this book as one of the best of the year, even a possible Newbery contender, and I certainly wouldn’t argue against it. It is certainly very much at home with the other four Nonfiction finalists, probably my second favorite after The Notorious Benedict Arnold.

— Mark Flowers

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Mark Flowers

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