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Review of The Wettest County in the World 

Author Matt Bondurant's grandfather and two great-uncles were known during the Depression as "the Bondurant Boys," among the most successful bootleggers in the United States. This novel based on their lives tells a riveting story of how the three brothers became regional legends. It also presents a rare look into the multifaceted lives of rural Southerners at the time -- and the few, but complex, choices available to them.

Working numerous stills in Franklin County, Va., just east of where I-81 now runs through the southwestern part of the state, the Bondurants produced and delivered hundreds of gallons of high-quality white lightning per week. They weren't alone in their choice of livelihood -- experts estimated that nine out of 10 men in impoverished Franklin County at the time were involved in the illegal liquor trade in some way -- but the Bondurants produced the best booze, and evinced a bold courage born of desperate circumstances. They became legendary when they defied the crooked state attorney's attempts to set up a "system" that would have allowed the politician to take a healthy cut of local distillers' profits in exchange for his "protection" from prosecution. They told him to essentially go to hell, which resulted in shootings, followed by one of the most talked about trials of the decade.

The author tells a parallel story of novelist Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) who, in the waning days of his career, was sent in 1934 to Franklin County by Liberty magazine to investigate the fast-driving-moonshiner tales that had caught the fancy of New York's literati. Through Anderson's struggles with tight-lipped locals, parts of the Bondurants' story, especially their battles with crooked lawmen, are related side-by-side with the brothers' own narratives. Anderson soon hears the tale of Forrest Bondurant, the eldest brother, who after his throat was cut in 1929 by two competitors, walked through the snow to a hospital 12 miles away, while pinching his throat wound closed. As Anderson arrives in Franklin County, two anonymous men are taken to the hospital, one with his legs shattered, and the other one castrated, with his testicles dropped into a jar of white lightning. Gradually, he links the two events as a story of long-term revenge.

The Wettest County in the World is a gritty, violent tale, often dark but lightened by love and music, told through a relentless, driving narrative in clear, vivid prose. The author brings the Bondurants to life, revealing their dark deeds and intense desires, but he does much more than pay tribute to his criminally creative ancestors. He also discloses the inner life of a time and place, and delves deeply into the psyche of a primal region fighting for survival in the modern world.

Review of Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives

This powerful bit of literary journalism was published in May, but I can't get it out of my head. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheeler of Denver, Co., spent two years shadowing Maj. Steve Beck, an earnest, caring marine whose job was to notify families of the death of their loved ones on the battlefields of Iraq. Neither Sheeler nor Beck over-sentimentalize things, but the book is as moving a depiction of someone conscientiously practicing "good works" in awful circumstances as this reviewer can remember ever reading.

Sheeler lets the reader see events through Beck's eyes as he and an assistant walk up to the various houses, deliver "the knock" that military families dread hearing, and spend hours and hours with the distraught parents, spouses and children. Perhaps because he has no political ax to grind, Sheeler, in his simple, elegant style, delivers moving portraits of a number of the young fallen soldiers, and reveals the terrible toll the soldiers' deaths have on those who raised them, married them, loved them. The deep pride and unbearable pain of military families comes through loud and clear, as Sheeler reveals just how much is being sacrificed by a small minority of Americans, while the rest of us go about our business.

In Sheeler's talented hands, Final Salute is matter-of-fact but caring, never maudlin but still deeply personal, even intimate. It's a revelation of the way Iraq casualties are kept from public sight, as well as a tribute to the people who bear the awful, dark burdens of the war. At times inspiring, at other times genuinely heart-breaking, this is one book that, as corny as it sounds, could make us a better country if everyone read it.

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