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The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Matt Bondurant

Starred Review. This fictionalized tale of Depression-era bootlegging from Bondurant (The Third Translation) enlists the help ofWinesburg, Ohioauthor Sherwood Anderson to investigate Bondurant family lore. In 1928, a pair of thieves accost Bondurant's … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Matt Bondurant
Publisher: Scribner
1 review about The Wettest County in the World: A Novel...

Darkness and light on the edge of town

  • May 7, 2009
Dark, stark novel based on the true story of the author's grandfather and his brothers and their time making moonshine in southwestern Virginia during the Depression is stirring and compelling. The "Bondurant Boys" made, ran, and sold moonshine, and in the course of business were shot, knifed, and survived despite horrific injuries that are the more staggering because they are part of the true story. Also true is the brother's resistance to joining a county-wide conspiracy of moonshiners and local law officials (documented in T. Keister Greer's account of the subsequent trial, The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935).

The story Matt Bondurant crafts around this elegiac bare-bones historical skeleton merits the classic rating. Grandfather Jack and his brothers Howard and Forrest, as Matt laconically reports in his "Author's Note" at the end of the book, "did not keep diaries," and little was told about the history during "long, slow talks before the woodstove where little was ever actually said" at extended family gatherings. Consequently, much of the story was unknown to the following generations until the participants were either dead or elderly.

Given a novelist's range of motion, then, to work around the underpinnings of the history of that dark time and distressed place, Bondurant takes full advantage with great skill. The limited avenues for pursuing happiness and sustaining life itself in those years seeps through the pages, and the motivation to survive and maybe even thrive makes the brothers sometimes sympathetic in a world which left them few options, especially one where blockading (their term, never "moonshining") was common and even the law was playing the game. But we also see and feel the visceral pain of their violent lives, and the lives and deaths of those whom they hurt even as they tried to build some better dream of life out of the darkness on the edge of town.

Bondurant describes a place that feels much like the South Texas hill country of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men with narrow valleys and scrubby forests harboring the potential for danger around each corner. A key difference is that McCarthy's landscape is most dangerous when and because it is populated with dangerous people who seem to threaten the main characters and through them the reader, while in this story it is the main characters and us the readers who seem the most dangerous to the nature and loved ones around us. Perhaps appropriate to the Baptist and Dunkard (very conservative German Baptist) churches that dot the landscape (then and now), I was reminded of Jesus' revelation that "It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man." (Matthew 15:11)

In making their own way with the deep-rooted and lonely individualism bred into them, the Bondurant Boys made their own demise. Their hard, violent actions proceeded from hard, violent hearts--yet hearts that had the iron to survive and still the capacity to love, forgive, forget, and be forgiven. And thankfully not forgotten, thanks to Matt Bondurant's bright tale.

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