An author and playwright offers a panorama of family life in a Detroit suburb set against the backdrop of Prohibition.
Commire (co-author: Breaking the Silence, 1990, etc.) casts a Great Lake–sized net in this monumental book she completed before her death in 2012. Not only does she delve deeply into the lives of her maternal grandparents and their seven children, one of whom was her mother, in the hardscrabble town of Ecorse, Michigan, but the author also explores Prohibition, which her grandfather tried to enforce as a justice of the peace and later as police chief. The result is an almost Thomas Wolfe–ian blend of historical facts and novelistic dialogue based on Commire’s extensive research. While it may intimidate some readers with its length and density, the volume deftly captures a large slice of American life with incredible details. At the heart of the story are two principal characters—family patriarch George Moore, who presided over court hearings in the barbershop that provided his main source of income, and the community of Ecorse. Due to its location just across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, Ecorse became a mecca for vice and bootleggers, including Moore’s own teenage son. At night, the author reports, “tight-lipped gangsters in face-shading fedoras or snap-brimmed hats walked the same street where children had played hopscotch just before dusk.” Commire is particularly adept at showing the paradoxes that made Prohibition so ineffective: “The Eighteenth Amendment encouraged the corrupt and contaminated the clean.” Moore was an exception to the rule of civic corruption. “What an awful time to be living,” he lamented. “All this stuff could tempt Mother Cabrini.” He also realized the futility of enforcing the law, noting that because of “all those years of loose talk” in his barbershop, “knowing what I know, I’d have to arrest half the town.” But ultimately, he got swept up in a scandal by agreeing to arrange for a bribe to a local politician to keep Moore’s son out of jail. At the end of the book, Commire’s mother remembers the town of her youth, “the promise, the pain, the laughter—mostly the laughter.” The author’s singular achievement is to bring all of that alive.
This book skillfully uses the struggles of a Michigan official to convey the contradictions that derailed the 18th Amendment.