Hang the Moon – Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, with unparalleled perception and kindness brings to us the inner voices of people who survive and thrive, despite their extraordinarily dysfunctional families. I have loved each of her books for her gift of writing, so much that I read hours and hours until my eyes will not let me stay awake. Hang the Moon may be her best book.

Duke Kincaid, owner of the Big House and the Emporium Store in Caywood, a small town in Virginia, is tough and in charge. He’s married to his third wife, Jane. Sallie is eight years old, the daughter of Duke’s second wife. Her mother died when she was three. Jane, wife number three is mother to Eddie. He’s three years old and very much a “mama’s boy.” Rough and tumble Sallie loves her brother. Jane doesn’t love Sallie though and things she’s bad for Eddie. So, when something happens that gives Jane leverage, Duke agrees to send Sallie to live with her Aunt Faith, until this blows over. Faith is very poor, a little disreputable, and a loving aunt who does her best by Sallie. It is around 1910. Almost ten years later, Duke brings Sallie home. Jane has died and he wants her to teach Eddie, 13, and to make sure he”mans up” and becomes a real Kincaid. Duke knows Sallie is all Kincaid. The brilliant sensitive Eddie takes to Sallie and she to him, but she nurtures him in his grief for his mother, ignoring her father’s directive.

As the story unfolds, changes come to the family, with disputes over property and power. Duke marries again to an unexpected type of woman, Kat. She’s a widow, a bit bawdy, but she could just give Duke the kind of son he wants. Duke goes on as usual. He dispenses justice. Looks over his vast property holdings. Continues to accept payment for goods from the store in the form of fine locally distilled whiskey, even into prohibition. He makes sure handpicked men, like his brother-in-law Earl hold positions of authority and influence in the town. Sallie still adores Duke. As things evolve, Sallie grows up and learns a lot more about her background, her family and Duke’s nature.

Over time, there are deaths, murders, bootlegging and a fortune to be had through running bootleg liquor to better places with better prices. The characters in the novel are fabulous. Eddie, the piano playing, sensitive and brainy small boy; Aunt Mattie, Duke’s sister who would have been Duke if she were male; Aunt Faith who is judged for bad choices all driven by poverty, while the wealthy people who judge her profit from immorality; Sallie, an independent, smart girl, then woman who is not interested in marriage and who has great business sense and common sense; Frank Rawley, an entrepreneurial handsome man who helps Sallie figure out how to improve revenue; Nell, longtime housekeeper and cook for the big house; Tom Dunbar, a law student and Sallie’s childhood friend who wants more than friendship with Sallie; various ordinary townsfolk, some rough and scary drunks and some kindly, but poor and all beholden to Duke.

Ultimately, Walls poses a universal question for people whose families are not okay and cause them trauma. How do we find peace and connection with people so that our lives have meaning? How do we let go of what has hurt us and move on? This period piece, placing us smack in the years of prohibition, with its boozy parties, its small town caste system and the roles of strong women who are typecast into expectations of marriage and children and sensitive boys who are expected to be rough and tough rings true throughout. It is moving, sad, triumphant, full of loss and redemption. Highly, highly recommend. But if you’ve read Jeannette Walls, you already bought the book.

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