Photo: John Taylor
‘Hang the Moon’ Is a Rollicking Novel About Prohibition-Era Virginia and the Bootlegging Business
Jeannette Walls leans into stories from her rum runner father and mines the life of a real female outlaw to question stereotypes about women / BY Dene Moore / March 31st, 2023
After mesmerizing readers with her bestselling 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls told interviewers she just couldn’t make things up. It turns out she was wrong. Three times.
Walls’ third novel, Hang the Moon, is among the year’s most anticipated books, according to OprahDaily.com, Elle magazine and the Literary Hub website.
“I used to go around insisting adamantly that I do not make things up, I have no imagination,” Walls, 62, says in an interview from New York City the day after she launched the book and a six-week tour that will bring to her to Canada in May. “Then I was at a book reading one time and I was just insistent – I don’t make things up, I’m incapable of it – and a gentleman in the audience very gently told me, ‘I think that you have a fabulous imagination, but you’re afraid of your own creativity.’ And it just about knocked my socks off, because he was onto something,” she says. “Both of my parents were just such fabulists. They were fibbers … and I realized that I associate creativity with dishonesty and even craziness.”
Fans of Walls are certainly familiar with her parents’ tenuous relationship with truth, which is laid bare in The Glass Castle. It took a different kind of courage for the author to embrace her own talent for spinning a tale. “This book took a long time to write and that was one of the reasons – kind of letting go of fact and letting creativity take over,” she says.
Since she published The Glass Castle, she wrote two other fiction books, Half-Broke Horses in 2010 and The Silver Star in 2014. It’s been worth the nine-year wait for Hang the Moon, where she returns to the rural America she has mined so well in her previous work. This time it’s prohibition-era Virginia, where we meet Sallie Kincaid as a rambunctious, motherless eight-year-old. Sallie, the daughter of the county’s most powerful businessman, Duke Kincaid, is banished when her wild ways lead to an accident that injures her half-brother, Duke’s son with his new wife.
When her stepmother dies, Duke summons 17-year-old Sallie, who eventually wheedles her way into the family business, which includes real estate, lumber, and store – and boot-legging. What unfolds is a rollicking tale with as many twists and turns as a rumrunner’s back road, with larger-than-life characters that are not, thankfully, the hillbilly caricatures relentlessly inflicted upon us by American books and movies.
“People in these parts have always made whiskey, especially folk up in the mountains, where that thin soil and those steep, rocky slopes don’t produce much in the way of cash crops,” Sallie reminds her aunt and uncle, who are talking about taxing moonshiners.
“For as long as anyone can remember, it’s been illegal to make and sell your own whiskey in Virginia, but everyone in the county – from the Duke to the deputies to the Bonds – ignored the law. Now, with Prohibition outlawing liquor throughout the whole country, drinkers looking to stockpile it are buying everything they can get their hands on and next thing you know Little Jimmy Bond is wearing yellow-leather boots and driving a cherry-red roadster. This a chance for folks who never had much money to get their hands on a little.”
As Sallie rises through the ranks at Kincaid Holdings, she makes her peace with this reality. “Outlaw. Rumrunner. Bootlegger. Blockader. I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave. Plenty of them still around. Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”
Walls says she loves stories about tough people during rough times, and although she has succeeded in embracing her imagination, the novel is not entirely divorced from her own life. The story begins with a quote from her father, Rex Walls, who was a rum runner in the late 1940s and early 1950s: “Quality? Hell, the only time our whiskey aged was when we got a flat tire.”
Her father’s stories about evading the law inspired her to find out more, and her research led to Willie Carter Sharpe, the legendary rum runner from Virginia, who was purported to have transported somewhere between 79,000 and 200,000 gallons of bootleg liquor in Franklin County, Va. – the alleged moonshine capital of the U.S. – before she was sentenced to three years in prison in 1932 and turned federal witness.
Ultimately, Walls just hopes Hang the Moon is a good read and people enjoy it.
“I hope that it makes people reflect on pigeonholing, or stereotyping, or whatever you want to call it,” she says. “I hope it makes people think about the roles that we play, both within our own families and within a larger society…. I think people get stereotyped but, even more dangerously, they stereotype themselves or they play roles within their families or within society.”