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Jeannette Walls' 'Hang the Moon' transports readers to Prohibition


The word Prohibition often conjures up the images of gangsters in three-piece suits, Ford Model T cars, jazz music blaring in glamorous speakeasies, and Al Capone. It's a fascinating time in American history and lovers of stories about the exchange of sex, money, and power between the haves and the have-nots, find the time period insatiable.

That's why Boardwalk Empire claimed 64 awards during its HBO run.

A movement originally driven by religious groups, Prohibition banned the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of liquor, which was seen as immoral and ungodly and therefore needed to be eradicated. The enforcement of Prohibition was difficult for both federal and local governments. With the closing of factories and other businesses that made or sold liquor, people were out of jobs and the quality of life further decreased for many middle- and lower-class people. Rural communities were hit hardest by these laws, even though a few supported Prohibition.

This is where Jeannette Walls' brilliant and effervescent new novel Hang the Moon transports us. Claiborne County, rural Virginia. 1920s. This car-chasing, shootout-filled story follows the rise of Sallie Kincaid, a fiery protagonist who has enough heart and grit to single-handedly carry her family business and her county on her back when given the chance. Walls' drama-filled page-turner barrels through a few storylines, touching on a fraught battle over family business succession, racial tension in a poor rural county, family secrets, and land conflict, all with the prohibition war looming as its backdrop.

The novel begins nine years after Sallie was cast out of the family home by her father Duke Kincaid, at the behest of his wife Jane, for accidentally injuring her younger brother Eddie — Jane's only son. At Jane's death, the Duke brings Sallie back to Claiborne County to take care of timid, oversensitive Eddie. Independent and sharp with strong ambitions like her father, 17-year-old Sallie is determined to carve a space for herself in her family's business, Kincaid Holdings — real estate, lumber mills, hauling company, the Emporium store, and bootlegging. She yearns for her father's blessing and trust; she wants to be seen as capable to handle the rigors of leadership even though she's a woman.

Sallie's as good as the Duke at spinning words and she convinces him to hire her as his wheelman, a tempestuous task where she collects rent and runs errands for him. A man's job, according to the Duke. It's one small step for Sallie but the line of succession, the Kincaid way, is for men to rule.

During the prohibition era, the temperance movement — run by religious women — played a substantial role in attempting to uphold the laws. They strongly supported Prohibition because they saw alcohol as destructive to families and marriages. As Walls' story progresses, there is much tension between the success of the business and those in power who support the temperance movement.

Sallie's defining moment in the story, comes as she decides what morality means for her instead of standing by as outsiders determined what is moral for her county.

The most satisfying thing about this novel is Walls' excellent construction of the main female characters. Each of them represents women from varying walks of life, each fighting for their own place in a male-dominated world. Mattie's intelligent and business-savvy and is unhappy being just a sheriff's wife, but understands her role and remains steadfast — even though she's constantly vocal about being overlooked. Sallie's half-sister Mary could be ripped right out of the Tudor history books. Mary is pious, fiercely loyal to her husband, religious, and misguidingly ruthless just like Mary Tudor, better known as Bloody Mary. Sallie herself bares a resemblance to a few female bootleggers in history, not letting her womanhood limit her aspirations. Unlike her aunt and her sister, Sallie refuses to have a man by her side and rewrites the rules as she goes along.

Walls has written a stunning and compelling tale — not surprising considering the acclaim she received for her memoir The Glass Castle. The novel Hang the Moon gives us a chance to think about something that hasn't gotten much attention — the lives of women bootleggers in America.

Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts & culture writer, and editor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 17, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this review, Mary was identified as Duke's sister. She is Sallie's half-sister.
Keishel Williams