Review: Prohibition-era tale ‘Hang the Moon’ goes down easy

“Hang the Moon” by Jeannette Walls (Scribner)

Jeannette Walls burst on the scene with her intensely personal memoir “The Glass Castle” in 2005. That book spent more than eight years on the hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and eventually became a 2017 movie starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson.

This book, while fiction, borrows heavily from the histories of real people and events who lived during the Prohibition era in Virginia. The narrator, Sallie Kincaid, is the daughter of the most prosperous man in Claiborne County, who everyone calls “Duke.” The heart of the story picks up with Sallie at almost age 18, when she moves back to the family estate after a decade in exile living with her poor aunt “in the hollows” of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her memories of the Duke are almost entirely positive, but the events of the novel quickly challenge that as the plot speeds along at a breakneck pace.

Before you know it the Duke is dead and Sallie stands to inherit the family business, which she’s long believed to be “diversified holdings” anchored by ownership of Caywood, Virginia’s general store. Turns out the real family money is in bootlegging, as Kincaid’s men buy illegal alcohol from family stills across the county and deliver it at a premium to desperate and thirsty customers as far away as Richmond and Roanoke. By novel’s end Sallie has a nickname, the Queen of the Kincaid Rumrunners, and her family relationships are almost entirely reconfigured.

In between, we spend a lot of time in Sallie’s head as she learns that almost nothing was what she thought it was when she was eight and the Duke affectionately called her “whippersnapper.” The plot twists and turns are a little abrupt at times, but it makes for a propulsive read. Characters come and go quicker than a swinging saloon door. There are old-school shootouts with Remington rifles, thrilling drives through the countryside, and of course, a love story.

Sallie’s voice is the best part of the book. “For the love of God, the things this family keeps quiet about are the things that matter the most,” thinks Sallie as the final pieces click into place about her true biography. Walls has created a character you root for, even as you question the morality of what she’s doing. Set in a time when American women had just earned the right to vote, “Hang the Moon” goes down easy and just a little too fast, like the forbidden whiskey that defines the life of Sallie Kincaid.

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