In December of 1930, Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant were crossing a bridge with cars full of illegal moonshine when they were stopped by local sheriff deputies looking for trouble.
Historical accounts of the event are unclear, but the altercation quickly turned violent and two of the brothers were shot.
Decades later, Matt Bondurant, grandson of Jack, learned about the shooting and of the violent past his grandfather and great-uncles had experienced during Prohibition in rural Virginia.
“In contemporary society everyone sort of universally agrees that [Prohibition] was a bad idea,” said Bondurant, author of “The Wettest County in the World.” “It was a terrible idea, so the people who were breaking the law during that time are not seen as criminals today, they were just more like interesting people.”
The novel, which now sells under the title “Lawless” after the movie based on the same story, is a historical fiction about Frederick County, Va. during prohibition.
Though the storyline is fictionalized, the characters are Bondurant’s ancestors and their real-life associates that Bondurant spent years researching.
“My work is always heavily informed by research,” said Bondurant. “I write a lot about things that actually are. Sometimes I will move them around or mess with them or sometimes I leave them the way they are.”
The novel follows Bondurant’s grandfather and great-uncles, Jack, Forest and Howard, through their bootlegging business that helped make Frederick County the biggest producer of illegal alcohol during prohibition.
Bondurant pieced the story together with any transcripts he could find from the time period, mostly newspaper clippings and court documents.
To fill in the holes, he fabricated internal thoughts, dialogue and events that he felt were true to what he knew about the characters and the time period.
Bondurant uses split-narration and leaps between years from chapter to chapter, which is sometimes a little difficult to keep up with.
However, by being in the head of two very different characters, one deeply involved in the elusive bootlegging business and the other a reporter trying to crack into it, the culture of the time and area is richly explored.
The book opens with a note from director of the film “Lawless”, discussing the glorified view of prohibition, a time when American gangsters met the ideals of the Wild West.
The time was far from romantic though.
Murder and extreme violence was all simply a means of survival and times in Frederick County were tough.
Be wary if you have a sensitive stomach, some of the scenes are jarring in their description of violence and death.
As a microcosm of the prohibition and Depression era America, the book is a fascinating look at the culture and grisly lifestyle of the time.
It is the rugged days of Prohibition, forcing many to take their drinking habits to underground establishments called speak-easies. The 18th Amendment, far from saving the country’s moral compass, made for wilder parties and greater excess of alcohol consumption. Moonshiners and bootleggers became the most loved, hated, revered and feared members of society.
While some law enforcement officers tried hard to do their civic duty, others were easily bribed, and in some towns they even attempted to take over the industry altogether for their own personal gains. In many of the largest distillery towns they succeeded, but not in Franklin County, Va.
“Lawless,” a film based on the book, “The Wettest County in the World” tells the fictionalized story of what happened in the back woods Virginia county so many years ago. It is based on the true story of the Bondurant family, three brothers who were successful bootleggers.
When a special deputy from Chicago, played by Guy Pearce, comes into town, all of the other moonshiners in the area are quick to pay him off for the privilege of distributing their alcohol.
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) and his brothers Jack (Shia LaBoef) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are the lone dissenters, refusing to pay the over quaffed city man.
The film’s incredibly violent depiction of the retribution that they incur and the war that ensues is visually arresting.
There is no hope of looking away as men are killed by flying bullets and flashing knives. Although it is difficult to feel empathy for Forest Bondurant at first, one can’t help but be in awe of him for his strength while facing almost certain bloody deaths.
His younger brother, Jack, is an idealistic boy trying to succeed and keep up with his infmaous brothers. It is fascinating to see the way his character builds as he deals with the violence and cruelty around him.
Whether you are a history buff looking for a movie based in the reality of Prohibition or a college-student looking to watch a good gun fight, this is a film worth watching.
Although it is no longer in theaters, wait for it to come out on DVD and in the meantime be sure to read the book that it was based on, “The Wettest County” by Matt Bondurant.