The Wettest County in the World

The Wettest County in the World

A Novel Based on a True Story

  • reading group guide
Based on the true story of Matt Bondurant’s grandfather and two granduncles, The Wettest County in the World is a gripping tale of brotherhood, greed, 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.

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  • Scribner | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416561408 | 
  • December 2009
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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 th see more

About the Author

Matt Bondurant
Photo Credit: Stacy Bondurant

Matt 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.


Author Revealed

Q. how did you come to write The Wettest County in the World?

A. I have many important memories of my time there, and of my grandfather; his quiet, hawk-like face, early rides in the pickup to feed the cattle, the staggering stoicism of this man. I also remembered the back utility room where he had a gun rack up on the wall. This wasn’t so unusual; in those days in Franklin County shotguns and rifles hung from nearly any flat surface, and in many houses they still do. What struck me about this particular gun rack was the pair of rusty brass knuckles hanging from a nail just below the gun rack. As a young boy the idea of a man putting on the heavy, metal implement, purely designed to crush another man’s face, was a thrilling prospect and I spent long periods of time gazing at those brass knuckles. To me they represented something remarkably primal, hanging there below the guns, as if to say: if you are still alive when I run out of bullets I will pull this hunk of metal off the wall and pummel you into unconsciousness. Back at the dinner table my grandfather’s heavy, placid face would take on a whole new light. I was terrified of him and fascinated about the life he had led.

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