I picked up Karen Blumenthal’s book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition DB 74427 for several reasons. 1) Why would you write a YA non-fiction about alcohol? 2) I grew up in St. Louis, MO, home to the Anheuser Busch brewery and knew that during Prohibition they made a drink called Bevo at the brewery and that the Clydesdales delivered beer to the White House when Prohibition was repealed. 3) I wrote my senior thesis in college on the women’s suffrage movement and I knew that the two movements (Women’s Suffrage and Prohibition) were allies in winning women the right to vote. 4) I like wine, and most of what I knew about Prohibition centered on beer and liquor. (This is still true, even after reading this book, although there is a recipe for making a home wine of questionable quality.)
Ms. Blumenthal is a Spirit of Texas Reading Program – Middle School winner for this year. She lives in Dallas, TX. The Spirit of Texas program “hopes to encourage a greater understanding of what it means to be a Texan and an appreciation for the literary works of and about Texas and Texans”. One of the leading legislators involved in introducing the amendment to Congress for the first time was Morris Sheppard who grew up in various towns in East Texas. I dropped Ms. Blumenthal an email asking her some questions about her book (AND SHE REPLIED!!). I asked her why she decided to write a YA book about alcohol. She answered, “I had been interested in Red Ribbon Week, which is the drug and alcohol education week in Texas, and I knew teens start dealing with issues involving drinking as early as junior high school, so I felt like this was an important topic for young people. In addition, I had written about the 1920s before, and it was such an interesting time of social change. One big part of that was prohibition, and I was taken with the way young people rebelled against the law. Of course, I also knew about Al Capone and other gangsters. And I was intrigued that an amendment to the Constitution had been repealed. Guns, gangsters, booze, politics, young people—how could that not be a fascinating story?”
Prohibition lasted from 1920 – 1933 — thirteen years, ten months, nineteen days to be exact. I was interested in the women’s groups that were involved in agitation and demonstrating to pass the 18th amendment, especially since this agitation happened before women had the right to vote. One leading rallier, Carrie Nation, went to a saloon and smashed the bar with a hatchet! Despite their open protests at saloons and rallies they seemed to be able to sneak up on people who did not support Prohibition to get it enacted. The propaganda leading up to Prohibition really played on the differences in people in the country: class differences, racial differences (white people in the South did not want black people to have access to alcohol), native born Americans and immigrants, and religious differences (Protestants challenging wine being used for religious purposes in Catholic and Jewish services.) Another big help in passing Prohibition was the start of World War One. Beer was seen as too German and therefore unpatriotic. There were food shortages on the battlefront. Grain was better used in food than in alcohol. Trains were better used to transport things needed for the war than for transport of drink.
The reality of Prohibition ended up being different than what was originally thought. It was stricter than many imagined when it was passed. It was not uniformly enforced. Blumenthal writes, “Capone and his men spent perhaps $15 million a year to line the pockets of and win favors from the police, prohibition agents and politicians who were supposed to shut him down.” (102) To enact the repeal of Prohibition some of the same tactics as Women’s Christian Temperance Union used to get law passed were used. They cited the effects on children. Children were learning a lack of respect for the Constitution and the law–even the president of the United States had parties where whiskey was served. The cost of taxpayer money and lives lost trying to enforce the law (and the cost of lives lost to crime caused by bootlegging) was much higher than originally reported. In 1929 there was a change in the law to make it even stricter, which required more enforcement and more jail overcrowding. With the start of the Great Depression there was a call for taxes on alcohol, and the creation of new jobs in brewing, bottling and sales of alcohol. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on a platform of repeal and signed that repeal only three days after his inauguration. Something I noticed as I was reading the book was that there seemed to be parallels between some laws of today and Prohibition, especially when it comes to having a statewide policy versus a national policy. I asked the author what she thought about those parallels. She replied, “Oh yes, I see lots of parallels with divisive social issues today. I think you can see parallels in debates over abortion, gun control, school prayer, school textbooks and drug laws (especially in regards to marijuana), just to name a few.”
Blumenthal concludes by telling the reader about the social ills of drinking that are still with us or made worse by drinking. She talks about M.A.D.D (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and Red Ribbon Week in schools and our communities that started in the 1980s . I asked the author what was the most interesting factoid that she found that she had to leave out. Her answer was, “Well, I mentioned that Al Capone was in the gambling and liquor businesses, but didn’t mention his chain of brothels. I also couldn’t find a good place to tell the story of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, assistant U.S. Attorney General during prohibition and the highest-ranking woman in federal government at the time. She oversaw the Prohibition Bureau and worked hard to enforce the law. She took a lot of grief for that, but she was highly regarded and reasonably effective, given the circumstances. I built a big file on her and found her fascinating, but I just couldn’t find the right place for her in the book’s narrative.”
I also asked Ms. Blumenthal about her upcoming projects. She had a book recently come out about Steve Jobs titled, Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Differently (it’s a little too new to be in the NLS collection just yet) and she’s been doing some research on Bonnie and Clyde. In my opinion, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition focused on times early in the Prohibition movement and the later repeal, but lacked detail about the middle years, with the exception of Al Capone. It was a quick, interesting, informative read and it was a pleasure to receive an email from Ms. Blumenthal about her work.
From the NLS annotation:
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition
Blumenthal, Karen. Reading time: 4 hours, 10 minutes.
Read by Bill Delaney.
True Crime, Young Adult, U.S. History
The history and legacy of Prohibition, which began with passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 and ended in 1933. Profiles Carrie Nation, the temperance movement’s first celebrity, and discusses the rise of bootleggers and gangsters such as Al Capone. For junior and senior high and older readers. 2011.