Sunday, October 2, 2011


Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
160 pages
Flash Point

Publisher's Description:

It began with the best of intentions. Worried about the effects of alcohol on American families, mothers and civic leaders started a movement to outlaw drinking in public places. Over time, their protests, petitions, and activism paid off—when a Constitional Amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcohol was ratified, it was hailed as the end of public drunkenness, alcoholism, and a host of other social ills related to booze. Instead, it began a decade of lawlessness, when children smuggled (and drank) illegal alcohol, the most upright citizens casually broke the law, and a host of notorious gangsters entered the public eye. Filled with period art and photographs, anecdotes, and portraits of unique characters from the era, this fascinating book looks at the rise and fall of the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition.

My Comments:

First of all, this book is very well-written. Blumenthal draws readers in immediately with an account of the St. Valentine's Day murders and then shoots back in time to describe the people, ideas and events that led up to it. In addition to introducing readers to the major players like Morris Sheppard, the "father" of Prohibition, she traces the roots of Prohibition all the way back to the pilgrims without letting the story get bogged down in the minutia of the past. If you'll pardon the expression, I never found the writing to be "dry." It helps that the book covers such a fascinating segment of American history, full of larger than life characters like Carrie Nation and Al Capone.

The overall design of the book is nothing special, but the wealth of images are a great strength. From a beer advertisement featuring a toddler (p. 28) to a full-page photograph of labor union members marching with "We Want Beer" signs and miniature flags (p. 107), the pictures alone tell a compelling story. A pair of photographs on page 68 comparing prohibition agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith in and out of costume had me giggling for several minutes.

Blumenthal makes a point of mentioning in her bibliography and source notes that there is great wealth of primary sources on prohibition available to anyone willing to dive in. She describes her trips to university libraries with entire sections on temperance and prohibition. In addition to library research, she also contacted famous people born just before 1920 to request interviews. Jean Craighead George (p. 75) and John Paul Stevens (p. 126) were two of the people who responded. The bibliography is nicely organized into subject categories (i.e. cars, Al Capone). Source Notes are organized by chapter, and while a little guesswork is needed to pair sources with quotes, I still found them to be helpful. Also included in the back is a useful Prohibition and Temperance Glossary. It's worth browsing for the definition of "ombibulous'" alone. Picture credits and an index round out the end materials.

The lessons learned during Prohibition (the problems with single-issue politics, the need for compromise, the consequences of changing the Constitution) are pertinent in today's political climate and ripe for discussion. Ken Burns' 3-part Prohibition documentary just debuted this week. In his Sept. 28 interview with Stephen Colbert, the reasons for Prohibition, the problems with the Volstead Act, and the era he describes snugly with what Blumenthal described in her book. Historian David Okrent, author of recent adult title Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, figures prominently in Burns' series. These two books may pair well for a teen-adult book discussion.

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