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11 January 2011 BOOTLEG: MURDER, MOONSHINE, AND THE LAWLESS YEARS OF PROHIBITION by Karen Blumental, Roaring Brook, May 2011, ISBN: 978-1-59643-449-3


"Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall

Ninety-nine bottles of beer"

--very long song we sang on the school bus while traveling to my first NY Yankees game in 1964


"Prohibition, as it was called, was a grand social revolution that was supposed to forever end drunkenness, reduce crime, and make life better for America's families.

"Nine years later, the results were quite different.  People who had always followed the rules now openly ignored the highest law of the land.  Children helped their parents secretly concoct brews.  Young people carried flasks of whiskey in their pockets to look fashionable and hung out at illegal 'speakeasies,' drinking.  Teenage boys acted as lookouts for bootleggers, or drove cars and boats loaded with illegal liquor to big cities.

"As alcohol was sold all around them, police officers, public officials, judges, and politicians took bribes or looked the other way.  Gangsters like Bugs Moran and the notorious Al Capone divided and controlled some of the nation's biggest cities, and now they seemed to murder each other at will.  Rather than become more moral and upright, America, in the eyes of many, had become a lawless society.

"How had such good intentions gone so terribly, terribly wrong?"


Many readers of BOOTLEG will recognize the religious-like fervor of Prohibition's proponents that is similarly a part of so many well-meaning social movements.  The question is, even when most people of good conscience agree on a societal goal, does the end always justify the means that are used to achieve it?  In retrospect, would we honestly support every strategy that was pursued and every action that was undertaken for the sake of achieving Civil Rights or women's rights or gay rights or ending the Vietnam War?   


One bourbon, one scotch, one beer

Well I ain't seen my baby since I don't know when

I've been drinking bourbon, whiskey, scotch, and gin

Gonna get high man, gonna get loose

Need me a triple shot of that juice

Gonna get drunk, don't you have no fear

I want one bourbon, one scotch, one beer"

-- Rudy Toombs, 1953


For instance, did the goal of reducing alcohol abuse in America justify the deliberate and systematic inclusion of misinformation about the effects of alcohol consumption in grade school textbooks that is revealed here by author Karen Blumenthal?  Did it justify the bizarre antics of the woman we learn about who went around demolishing saloons until she became a nationally-known hero to some and a bad joke to others?  Did the desire to end the misery of those affected by alcoholic family members justify Prohibition?


The goal of curtailing alcohol abuse is, for me, a complex issue.  As we learn in BOOTLEG, there was plenty of crossover between the women's rights movement and the temperance movement.  I am certainly sympathetic to the goal of curtailing alcohol abuse, having been personally affected as much as anyone throughout my life by having alcoholic family members and relatives, dear friends in recovery, and knowing those who have prematurely died as a result of alcohol abuse or have died at the hands of alcoholics.  Having just returned last night from the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in San Diego, it is impossible to write about the effects of alcohol without recalling the tragic deaths of Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz, the children's librarians who were killed by a drunk driver while leaving ALA Midwinter in Denver two years ago.


But unlike, say, the Civil Rights Movement, the question of whether we should seek to thoroughly curtail alcohol or any other kind of consumption was and is not nearly so black and white as the need to end racism. 


Most importantly, when we become part of a Movement -- any movement -- it is so easy to become seduced by the ideas of whomever grabs control of the crowd, and to then justify the means employed.  And this is, perhaps, the most important lesson to take away from this stellar and extremely well-researched piece of investigative writing. 


"As the drys enjoyed their hard-won victory, others wrestled with how to adjust to the new era.  Librarians in Springfield, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut, decided to pull off the shelves any books describing how to make alcohol.  Librarians in New York and San Francisco chose to leave the books in place."


Moving beyond the significant lessons to be mined here, there are also the scores of truly bizarre, frightening, and entertaining tales of what America was like once it had become illegal to sell alcoholic beverages or to consume them in public.  (It was still legal to buy booze and to drink booze privately.)  True tales of rum runners and shakedowns and undercover cops and private clubs and corruption reveal how a whole mass culture grew around a law that was disrespected by a significant segment of the population -- much like what I grew up with in the Sixties and Seventies in regard to marijuana. 


In BOOTLEG, Blumenthal shows how in grappling with enforcement of such laws, there is so often a class divide.  If you are really rich, you can just ignore the law.  A little less rich, and you have to pay a doctor for a prescription.  Today's parallel here in California is that while a poor teen gets jailed for getting caught with a joint, middle class adults can claim that they suffer from depression and pay a doctor for a prescription that permits them to purchase and consume high-grade pot whenever they want. 


As she did with LET ME PLAY, one of my all-time favorite pieces of nonfiction for children and teens, Karen Blumenthal once again brings American history to life and connects it to the lives of today's readers.  This is young people's informational literature at its absolute best.


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/
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FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books.  You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received.  Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

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