The Real Story Behind ‘Lawless’ by Matt Bondurant

gangster-film-om03
Shia LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant in Lawless (in theaters Aug. 29); the real Jack, circa 1935. Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP / The Weinstein Company (left); Courtesy of Matt Bondurant

I think my grandfather would be delighted at being portrayed by as talented a young actor as Shia LaBeouf. He stars in the new film Lawless, based on my novel The Wettest County in the World, which dramatized the events surrounding my Grandpa Jack’s bootlegging business—and a shooting that my family didn’t discover for years.

We were all aware that my grandfather used to run liquor when he was young, but these were things that were never discussed in Franklin County, Va. Moonshine was a dangerous business: the distillation process involves fire, high pressure, and flammable liquids. Improper technique or materials could cause paralysis, blindness, or worse. Bootlegging, or what they called “blockading” in those days, was also fraught with danger; a car full of booze on the open road was fair game for hijackers or law enforcement.

We all just assumed that Grandpa Jack’s trade was small and general. So when my father unearthed a series of newspaper articles about a shooting at Maggodee Creek Bridge in 1930, we were quite shocked. In these articles my grandfather and his brothers Forrest and Howard, “The Bondurant Boys,” were described as a notorious group with a dangerous reputation. My grandfather was still alive then, and when my dad confronted him about the shooting he merely lifted his shirt to show the bullet hole. That was it. I was living across the country at the time, and didn’t have a chance to question him further. He died the next year at 91 years old.

Like many young boys, I was afraid of my grandfather. He was an imposing man, and people around the county treated him with respect. I spent a lot of time in his back storage room staring at an old pair of brass knuckles hanging on the wall, understanding even then that my grandfather lived a very different life than anything I would know.

Franklin County in the 1930s wasn’t a place where people spent much time documenting their daily activities. There are no journals, memoirs, or letters from my grandfather and his brothers. To tell their story, I relied mostly on newspaper articles or court transcripts, which provide a scattered picture. We know that the Bondurant Boys arrived at the Maggodee Creek Bridge on a snowy winter day and found a roadblock waiting for them. The ensuing confrontation ended with Dep. Charley Rakes shooting my grandfather in the chest at close range, then Forrest in the stomach as he went to his brother’s aid.

Then there are some events that belong more to the realm of family lore, rumor, or even myth. It is hard to say what was on my grandfather’s 20-year-old mind, and it is even more difficult to try to portray the frightening old man I knew as young, earnest, and in love with my grandmother Bertha. Their courtship is reproduced to great effect in Lawless, with Mia Wasikowska playing the character based on my grandmother. I do know that he was a charismatic young man with an entrepreneurial spirit, who valued his brothers but who also sought his fair share of glory.

In retrospect, I think that in writing this book I was trying to make up for lost time. I think of the missed opportunities, the chances I had to talk to my grandfather, and I get angry and filled with regret. This story, this doorway to the past was right there in front of me, waiting. I was young and afraid. I won’t make that mistake again.

Matt Bondurant’s most recent novel is The Night Swimmer.

Join the Discussion