Karen Blumenthal writes nonfiction the way it should be written. I just wish my history textbooks in school had been written half as well as Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Roaring Book Press 2011). I would have learned a lot more and enjoyed it, too.
Blumenthal opens the book with one of the most chilling scenes from the Prohibition years: the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Then she backs up decades to trace just how we as a country ended up in such a place. How did a Constitutional amendment presented with good intentions lead to such violence and lawlessness? She introduces the fascinating people who led the Prohibition movement such as Morris Shepherd (the Father of National Prohibition) and Carrie Nation (axe-wielding bar smasher). She doesn’t neglect those who profited from Prohibition, including Al “Scarface” Capone, the notorious gangster blamed (possibly wrongly) for the Valentine’s Day Massacre.
She also gives a gripping narrative of the political maneuvering that led Prohibition’s successful passage and eventual repeal. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League used propaganda spread through the media and schools to spread their message and change minds. They certainly knew the value of and used publicity stunts, including the use of children. They also were savvy in approaching first local and state governments before taking to the national stage. Blumenthal weaves together many of the strands of history–women’s suffrage, World War I, governmental roles–that influenced Prohibition.
Once Prohibition came into effect with the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act, the nation began to learn the effect of unintended consequences. Those chapters were some of the most fascinating. I can see my students being fascinated not only with the bigger than life Capone, but also with the beginnings of NASCAR from the good old boys who earned their money smuggling illegal booze from one place to another. For those who want to learn more, lists many possibilities (organized by topic) in the Bibliography and Source Notes.
I can’t wait to share this title in my classroom once school starts again. It is sure to be a hit.