walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Last Call_, Daniel Okrent (kindle)

Subtitled: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Stunningly, _not_ an academic press book: the imprint is Scribner, so it is Simon and Schuster. Recently published (May), I saw the author on Rachel Maddow -- she was taken by the description of the Anti-Saloon League and its single-minded focus on a single issue.

I cannot recall enjoying any book, fiction or non-fiction, quite so much as I enjoyed reading this one. It has been many years since I last wanted a book to go on and on indefinitely because I so thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is possible that the topic is a large chunk of the explanation: I have never read in any depth about Prohibition, altho I have read several books about strategies in regulating alcohol and other recreationally mind-altering substances. Okrent begins several decades before Prohibition and continues for a while after Repeal, thus, while his focus is on Prohibition, there is a lot of familiar territory in the form of woman suffrage.

Maddow is right to have found this book appealing from a political journalist perspective: Okrent's perspective is political. A lot of books about regulating mind-altering substances have a very recognizable agenda; Okrent doesn't, in part because this is _history_. He's not talking about marijuana or meth or anything else. He's talking about alcohol. And he's specifically talking about a short list of organizations (including WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League, but also many others) that were political to the core: they had a goal and they rallied whatever resources they could to attain that goal. They lied. They misrepresented. They twisted the constitution. They race-baited. Etc. Okrent _could_ have painted the goals as evil, but he does not: when he's describing what the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League were up to, it's pretty easy to sympathize. Not just empathize, not just feel compassion, but to feel swayed by their propaganda, even while recognizing it as propaganda. When he's describing what the brewers were up to, as much as I sympathized with their goal, I was horrified by their tactics and their rationales. It's hard to say Okrent is neutral, but it is easy to feel, after reading this, that Okrent really made an effort to understand why people did what they did, and to present that as accurately as he possibly could. That makes for both a rollicking good read and really excellent history.

It is entirely possible that Okrent has a massive bias, and it is invisible to me because I share it utterly. I don't know. What I do know is that I came to this book without particularly high expectations -- I just figured that Rachel Maddow doesn't often plug a book quite that hard, or for quite that reason, so I might as well give it a shot. And what I left this book with -- in addition to a wonderfully detailed vision of Prohibition, what led to it, what it did to our country, and what did it in -- was an eye-popping realization that the Republican Party has been breathtakingly stupid in a very particular way once before. So I probably shouldn't be so surprised to see it happening once again. And right there, that's probably the bias.

I cannot possibly recommend this book strongly enough. I envy you the fun you are about to have, the day you embark upon this lovely, lovely book.

ETA: Oh, yeah. There's a chapter on Joe Kennedy, and how the rumor got started that he was a bootlegger, and how he almost certainly was not. That was a shocker, and a fascinating tale in its own right.
Tags: book review, history, politics

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