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The Wettest County in the World

A Novel Based on a True Story



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About The Book

*The inspiration for the major motion picture Lawless*

Based on the true story of Matt Bondurant’s grandfather and two granduncles, The Wettest County in the World is a gripping and gritty tale of bootlegging, brotherhood, and murder.

The Bondurant Boys were a notorious gang of roughnecks and moonshiners who ran liquor through Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition and in the years after. Howard, the eldest brother, is an ox of a man besieged by the horrors he witnessed in the Great War; Forrest, the middle brother, is fierce, mythically indestructible, and the consummate businessman; and Jack, the youngest, has a taste for luxury and a dream to get out of Franklin. Driven and haunted, these men forge a business, fall in love, and struggle to stay afloat as they watch their family die, their father's business fail, and the world they know crumble beneath the Depression and drought.

White mule, white lightning, firewater, popskull, wild cat, stump whiskey, or rotgut—whatever you called it, Franklin County was awash in moonshine in the 1920s. When Sherwood Anderson, the journalist and author of Winesburg, Ohio, was covering a story there, he christened it the “wettest county in the world.” In the twilight of his career, Anderson finds himself driving along dusty red roads trying to find the Bondurant brothers, piece together the clues linking them to “The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy,” and break open the silence that shrouds Franklin County.

In vivid, muscular prose, Matt Bondurant brings these men—their dark deeds, their long silences, their deep desires—to life. His understanding of the passion, violence, and desperation at the center of this world is both heartbreaking and magnificent.

Reading Group Guide

Questions For Discussion
1. Upon the death of his wife, Granville Bondurant says, "all the goodness has gone out of the world." What does he mean by his sentiments? How is each member of the remaining Bondurant family impacted by this death? How do they bear out Granville's sentiments?
2. Discuss the night that Forrest Bondurant's throat was cut at the County Line Restaurant? What do these events and the stories they spawned reveal about Forrest? Maggie? The community?
3. Discuss the symbolic significance of the opening sequence, the sow's slaughter. How does it relate to the novel's major themes?
4. Why do you think Matt Bondurant decided to make Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, one of the principal characters in the novel? What does Anderson allow the reader to understand about the Bondurants and the larger community in which they live? Discuss the parallels between this novel and Sherwood Anderson's own work.
5. Discuss the female characters in the novel. Discuss the role women place in this world? What do the women reveal about the men of Franklin County, particularly the three brothers?
6. How do the brothers and the people of Franklin County negotiate and make sense of their lives in relation to the natural world?
7. Jack thought of Howard as "some kind of machine or animal, reacting to the world in an instinctual manner." Why is this line of thought both comforting and frightening to Jack?
8. Explain the sequence of events that precipitates the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. What were the outcomes of the trial for the Bondurants?
9. What parallels does Anderson draw between the Bondurants' struggles and his own literary battles? Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not?
10. What is the picture of the American psyche and way of life that emerges from Bondurant's story? What are the threats to this way of life? Where do you believe the author's sympathies lie? Where do yours?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Who is Sherwood Anderson? What does Bondurant intend for us to understand about his inclusion in the novel? Consult, which publishes an online version of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a group of short stories about small town life. What do his stories reveal about his point of view on the world? What do their narrative structure, style, and characterization allow us to understand about The Wettest County in the World?
2. Immerse yourself in the sounds of the era by purchasing and playing moonshine songs at your book club meeting. These songs tell their own tale of the moonshine lifestyle. You can listen to a sampling of the songs at these websites:

  • 3. Want to sample moonshine? You can acquire legal moonshine called Virginia Lightning for your book club meeting by visiting and ordering from
    4. Attend the 10th Annual Moonshiners Jamboree held on the first weekend of August 2008 in Climax, Virginia. The festival celebrates the region's history of moonshining with music, food, and displays of moonshine stills. Get directions and ticket information at

    About The Author

    Photo Credit: Stacy Bondurant

    Matt Bondurant is the author of three novels, the most recent of which is The Night Swimmer. Lawless—previously published as The Wettest County in the World—was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s 50 Best Books of the Year. His first novel, The Third Translation, was an international bestseller, translated into fourteen languages worldwide. He currently teaches literature and writing in the Arts and Humanities graduate program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

    Product Details

    • Publisher: Scribner (December 29, 2009)
    • Length: 320 pages
    • ISBN13: 9781416561408

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    Raves and Reviews

    "Bondurant tells a distinctively American story. The gritty, suspenseful narrative gripped me and wouldn't let me go. It also touched my heart in all the right ways. Matt Bondurant's writing is as full of beauty as it is of verve and grit. Thank God it's legal to write so well." -- Lee Martin, author of River of Heaven and The Bright Forever

    "In his scintillating new novel, Matt Bondurant explores a crucial period in the history of Virginia and of his family. His gorgeous, precise prose brings to life an amazing cast of characters, including Sherwood Anderson, and the often deadly battles of Prohibition. The Wettest County in the World is a remarkably compelling, highly intelligent, and deeply moving novel." -- Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street and Eva Moves the Furniture

    "Bondurant endows this gritty story with all the puzzle-solving satisfactions of a mystery. It's a gripping, relentless tale, delivered in no-nonsense prose." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "Interweaving the bleak portraits of Walker Evans, the charged landscapes of Annie Dillard, and the breakneck plotting of Cormac McCarthy, Matt Bondurant mines his own family history to offer a novel that's both a gritty, fast-paced tale of bootleggers and car chases and a timeless hard-knock ballad, a myth fixed in the amber of one small community's imagination. The Wettest County in the World is a suspense story dashed to tintype smithereens, each one a jewel." -- Elis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire

    "Brilliantly conceived, and so close to home, this novel proves Matt Bondurant's burgeoning talent -- a book for thirsty American readers to guzzle down, a book for all young American writers to admire." -- Alan Cheuse, author of The Fires

    "Bondurant writes fiercely and passionately. Severe violence, thrillingly rendered, pervades this book, which will remind readers of hard-hitting Southern writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown. ....The story Bondurant has to tell is riveting, detailed and historical. His knowledge of Southern culture is as deep as his ancestors' knowledge of making whiskey. We are aware from the first page that we are in the hands of a remarkable storyteller." -- San Francisco Chronicle

    "Bondurant is a nimble writer, especially when it comes to depicting gore and guts. His descriptions of the warped and wounded (a man lying in a hospital bed with "skin blanched like boiled meat; the bedding stained with a yellowish fluid" can leave a reader queasy, but the liveliness of his writing makes it hard for even the most lily-livered to look away.....Bondurant's prose is lyrical.......who can deny the power of a narrative so deeply rooted in childhood imaginings, when a mild and quiet grandfather hung those brass knuckles on the wall?" -- New York Times Book Review

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