Who’s Your Bootlegger?

Last CallLast Call: the rise and fall of Prohibition is a sometimes fascinating, usually interesting exploration of what in retrospect seems inexplicable. Daniel Okrent delves deep into the origins of the Prohibition to show its links to the Women’s Suffrage movement and latent xenophobia. He also shows the inner workings of Congress to explain how the necessary Constitutional Amendment was passed.

Okrent is at his best when his vignettes are grounded in a single person or event. For me he was at his worst when he would bring a character on stage, such as Wayne Wheeler, and wait hundreds of pages before telling us anything about the person other than his actions. When explaining a movement driven by deeply-felt and often deeply personal emotions keeping a distance doesn’t work.

What can’t be argued with is the vast amount of research Okrent clearly conducted, most of which seems to have found its way into the book. I had the odd sensation of wishing someone would quiz me on the Prohibition after finishing Last Call. It seemed pity to waste all that detailed knowledge. Which brings me to my major caveat for this book: it is not for the casual reader. If you want to learn about this important chapter in US history then you would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive book. If, however, you are only mildly interested then this book is not likely to whip that mild interest into fascination. The mildly interested would be well-advised to skip judiciously – you don’t need to read all 480 pages to learn from and enjoy this book.

Okrent does have his focal points – Samuel Bronfman is one – and most fit well. His last discursion into whether or not Joseph P. Kennedy was or was not a bootlegger struck me as the oddest. Okrent’s contention that “most people” think JPK was a bootlegger seemed a little, how shall I say, a little 1975. I’m not sure most people even know who JPK WAS let alone what he was doing in the 1920s. If Okrent feels he’s cleared up a major misconception then bully for him but to me it was a missed opportunity to tie up the story.

Recommended for those interested in US history and highly recommended for anyone particularly interested in the topic.

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