The Wettest County in the World

Written by Matt Bondurant
Review by Nanette Donohue

During the Prohibition era, moonshine flowed freely through the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia, and few bootleggers were more productive, violent, and notable than the Bondurant Boys—three brothers whose operation and tactics were known throughout the county. Eldest brother Forrest is the brains of the operation, middle brother and World War I veteran Howard is the brawn, and youngest brother Jack is the engine whose taste for the finer life keeps the business going. While their product is the standard rotgut moonshine, their tactics set them apart and make them feared throughout the region. The Bondurants and their accomplices are fearless—unafraid of violence, reprisal, or the law. They are driven by circumstance, poverty, greed, and the desire to raise themselves above their circumstance. The tale of the Bondurant Boys is intertwined with the story of novelist Sherwood Anderson, who failed to live up to his early potential and is now a newspaper owner in rural Virginia. Anderson travels to Franklin County to report on the Bondurant story, and finds that the tight-lipped locals have little to say.

Bondurant based his novel on his own family’s history, but he doesn’t romanticize anything. Prohibition-era Franklin County was a gritty, violent, demanding place, where corruption and greed ran rampant and loyalty to family, whether by blood or by choice, was essential. As the story progresses, we begin to see the humans behind the Bondurant legend, and witness how their ambition cost them their well-being, destroyed their relationships, and, in some cases, almost killed them. The nonlinear structure takes some time to get used to, as does the extensive and colorful cast of characters, but the tale of loyalties won and lost highlights the brutality of the era, and the physical, mental, and emotional price paid for greed.