Book Review: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Note: This post ran concurrently at Beer Journal 

Daniel Okrent

I'm not expert in the field, but it seems to me that a good history book will accurately report on past events. A very good history book will accurately report while shining new light and by providing new insights. And a great history book will do those things, plus provide a lens for readers to use past events to interpret their modern worlds. Last Call, a singularly-focused tome by Daniel Okrent (Slate interview), former public editor of the New York Times and inventor of Rotisserie Baseball, falls into that last category.

In roughly 400 digestible pages, Okrent intricately detailed an era that school children across the nation can name, without focusing on the main points that most readers would already expect going in. Sure, Al Capone, Andrew Volstead and William Jennings Bryan get their due attention, but so do lesser-known noteworthy characters (in every sense of the term) Carry Nation, Al Smith, Billy Sunday and Sam Bronfman, none of whom are unjustly deified of damned. Places, such as the French-owned (and thus, prohibition-free) islands off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are rightly treated as potential protagonists.

Perhaps just as important in this reviewer's estimation is the overall non-judgmental tone of Okrent's narrative, which does not fall into the predictable pratfalls of stereotyping the different people or events as simply "good" or "bad", but instead focuses on which were more effective and/or lasting.Okrent leaves it up to the reader to apply the lessons of prohibition to modern contexts. And there are many opportunities to do so. How you interpret these lessons is largely likely determined upon your present ideological slant.

For instance, modern day conservative talking heads like to remind everybody within earshot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that it was his party that freed the slaves. However, it is rarely mentioned that they are also the party the that installed big government Prohibition and, as a result, the federal income tax, two aspects of modern society that conservatives like to rail against. Furthermore, during the Prohibition era, Prohibitionist politicians aligned themselves with the KKK and had their campaigns supported by mobster and bootleggers, all groups that where able to make hay (and money) once alcohol was outlawed. Liberals might appreciate the way progressive politicians and privative citizens worked together to pass the 21st Amendment, but the good vibe can only last so long before remembering that modern day Democrats are too impotent to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, let alone an entire Constitutional Amendment. What's more, the repeal itself took the flip-flopping of 17 senatorial votes, a prospect that should frighten any political party in the majority.

According to the sticker on the book cover, Ken Burns is working on turning Last Call into a PBS documentary chock-full of cameras panning over still photographs (it already has a Facebook page). That program is already listed as a must-see not just because of Burns's involvement, but because Daniel Okrent provided source material that is both thorough and vivid enough to provide surprises for history buffs that thought they already knew everything there was to know about the largest restriction of personal freedom in recent memory.

Orkent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

Indie Bound

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