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Lawless by Matt Bondurant

Based on the true story of Matt Bondurant’s grandfather and two granduncles, The Wettest County in the Worldis a gripping tale of brotherhood, greed, and murder. The Bondurant Boys were a notorious gang of roughnecks and moonshiners who ran liquor through Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition and in the years after. Forrest, the eldest brother, is fierce, mythically indestructible, and the consummate businessman; Howard, the middle brother, is an ox of a man besieged by the horrors he witnessed in the Great War; and Jack, the youngest, has a taste for luxury and a dream to get out of Franklin. Driven and haunted, these men forge a business, fall in love, and struggle to stay afloat as they watch their family die, their father’s business fail, and the world they know crumble beneath the Depression and drought.

White mule, white lightning, firewater, popskull, wild cat, stump whiskey, or rotgut — whatever you called it, Franklin County was awash in moonshine in the 1920s. When Sherwood Anderson, the journalist and author of Winesburg, Ohio, was covering a story there, he christened it the “wettest county in the world.” In the twilight of his career, Anderson finds himself driving along dusty red roads trying to find the Bondurant brothers, piece together the clues linking them to “The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy,” and break open the silence that shrouds Franklin County.

In vivid, muscular prose, Matt Bondurant brings these men — their dark deeds, their long silences, their deep desires — to life. His understanding of the passion, violence, and desperation at the center of this world is both heartbreaking and magnificent.

My Review

The Bondurant were not gangsters like that of the suburbs of New York during the prohibition. If anything they were hard workers and if they knew there was a profit the people could make they tried to survive from it.
Considering the unrelenting and unforgiving harsh climate and landscape they lived amongst and around 1918 the people died and lived through some very brutal times, epidemics, they had to be tuff and survive financially with what came their way. There was some very nasty official people who wanted to capitalise on the last days of the prohibition and the Bondurant clan was not having it, they would not bent and fold. I think the word gangster is not a fitting description, they were a generation of family who would not lay down, some had a hell of a fight in them, they did go against the law yes, but who wasn’t in those days trying to profit from Moonshine and tobacco.
The grandfather of this story set in stone mentality and by example ways of a Bondurant man, of a hard working man, they grafted, toiled and sweated like many people of their time.
A memorable family that worked well in this story.

This was an engaging and enjoyable read, a look at a true family from history.
The author done well in describing the landscape, the people and the world of those days. It was enjoyable to read of the protagonist writers friendship with Hemingway and his meeting with Faulkner in the story.

“That next summer (1918) the Spanish Lady Flu epidemic swept through the southeastern states, finding its way into the deepest hollows and mountain ridges of Franklin County. The county went into self imposed quarantine. Generations of families had known the ancient periodical ravages of sweeping illness like diphtheria, influenza, smallpox, and the certain knowledge of deaths deliberate visitation ground all activity to a standstill as families huddled together in their homes. Jack’s father, Granville Bondurant, closed up his vacant general store, itinerant mendicants and blasted road-men his only occasional customers. Families relied on the saved stores of food stockpiled in root cellars, cool spring houses. The Brodies who loved across the broad hill stopped coming down the dirt road by the house, as did the Deshazos, a black family that lived a half a mail off. The pews of Snow Creek Baptist Church stood cockeyed empty and hooded crows roosted in the crude lectern.”

“As a teenager Forrest would rise before dawn and top tobacco and pull suckers till dinner, then walk four miles through Snow Creek Hollow to a lumber camp and work a crosscut saw until supper. The next day he would get up and do it again, seven days a week, substituting cattle work, apples, chestnuts, hog butchering, haying, busting clods, harrowing, plowing, carpentry, depending on the season, need, and paying customers. With Howard he took loads of walnuts and apples to Roanoke in oxcarts, and tobacco to Harrisonburg, Martinsville, and Richmond, where he slept on pallets stacked high with pressed tobacco hands in the darkness of the warehouse. He began to drink occasionally, accepting the grimy jar as it was passed hand over hand, though Forrest never took any pleasure in it other than that it helped him put his head down and get his eyes screwed tight long after everyone else had gone to sleep. People moved around him as if he were a wild dog in the street.”

“(1934) What everyone in the county did talk about was tobacco. It hung on the lips of men like salvation, it was as if they believed if they repeated the word enough,’bacca, the chanting, the incarnation, the sound of it would bring a strong crop and suddenly Franklin County would flower in prosperity. That summer Anderson watched as men, young boys and girls walked the rows of tobacco for hours in the devastating heat, seemingly endless rows that stretched over the hills, stooping to pull tobacco worms off the stalks and leaves, fat white grubs several inches long that writhed in your palm when plucked, their tiny black heads waving, beak-like mouths seeking purchase.”

“(1930) The last of the rain, in early April, gave way to the long waste of drought, blazing blue skies, cloudless, sparkling with dust. The early shoots withered in a matter of weeks, the bony cattle following the thin licks up the creek beds, planting their muzzles deep in any soft patch of mud. Fish crowded in the deep eddies and boys waded in to grab mud cats and carp with their hands. Headlights sweeping over a field at night found them alive with glowing eyes as packs of deer came down from the mountains desperate for water, parched and defiant. The old superstitions raised their hoary heads and traveling through stands of woods in Franklin County that summer you would occasionally find a snake hanging from a tree, nailed by the head, an ancient appeal to the wood gods to bring the rain back. Fields of yellow, stunted tobacco with untapped blooms covered the county. Red clay surged to the surface through scattered weeds, the powder rising into the air on no wind at all, like transpiration, the dry sucking up the dry, and so a fine slit of clay was worn in every crease, in the eyes of dogs, in the skillets of fatback and pintos. A matter of minutes after you swept the floor clean you could draw in it with your finger. Men stood with their hands in their pockets, heads low, scuffing their boots, dreaming of sudden, angry cloudbursts. They knew when the tobacco died the shooting would begin. By August even the children grew quiet, beyond listless, and wandered down to the dry creeks in small groups, daydreaming of ice. In the summer of 1930 women all over the southern part of the state of Virginia stood in their dusky kitchens and wept.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 02 December 2012