Jeannette Walls’ Hang the Moon is a Prohibition-era novel featuring the fearless Sallie Kincaid. Born into a powerful family in rural Virginia, her father (known as the Duke) is the biggest businessman around, managing all manner of enterprises — some legal, some not.
With politicians and police in his pocket, Duke’s larger-than-life world is Sallie’s reality. And it’s a challenging world to fit into when you’re a girl expected to get married, have children and fall in line with what kinfolk and society dictate for young ladies coming of age in the roaring ‘20s. But Sallie has other plans.
Until now, Jeannette Walls’ novels have been more memoir than make-believe. Her dysfunctional family was remembered in The Glass Castle, which was a New York Times bestseller for several years and was also released as a major motion picture in 2017. Walls is also the author of the bestsellers Half Broke Horses (based on her grandmother) and The Silver Star (fictional, but including some inspiration from real life). Hang the Moon, then, is perhaps her first true work of fiction. Only the author knows for sure.
The contrast of the time and place with Sallie’s unconventional nature makes Hang the Moon equal parts frustrating and entertaining to read in modern times. It’s a thought-provoking perspective on how even privileged women don’t have the same opportunities as men — especially in rural communities. Whether 1923 or 2023, these experiences linger.
After one of Sallie’s daredevil stunts injures her half-brother, she is exiled to live with her aunt for several years. By the time she returns to her father, she’s 17 and about to meet yet another stepmother.
Being back in the big house (as the family calls their home), Sallie’s memories of the past are stirred, and more colourful characters come to light. Regarding her mother: “She had a laugh that could turn sour milk fresh, a laugh that made you start laughing, too.”
The Prohibition subplot exposes the divide between rich and poor as well as the ingenuity that exists at all levels when there’s an easy yet illegal way to make money. From backwoods stills to organized bootlegging, everyone earns money in the same way — just at a different scale.
“There’s all kinds of laws. Local law, state law, federal law, common law, civil law, God’s laws. Laws made by people far away don’t matter all that much. What matters are the laws made by the people right here, the ones taking care of you.” True 100 years ago, in Sallie’s mind. And, some would argue, true today.
Grief, lies, racism and shame are other significant experiences shared in the sordid family memoir. The amount of loss and secrets in the Kincaid family become increasingly hard to fathom. Fortunately, Walls balances tragic events with Sallie’s spunk, but that strategy cannot completely soften the harsh lens on family and community life.
It’s interesting to note that this brilliantly entertaining work of fiction was based in part on a woman named Willie Carter Sharpe, known as the “Queen of the Roanoke Rumrunners” from Franklin County, Va. Information about Sharpe came to light during the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, and Walls used this material to help craft the family business backstory.
Deborah Bowers is a marketing and communications professional.
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