Author Marian Leah Knapp joins the Spotlight to discuss her biography, Prohibition Wine

Author Name: Marian Leah Knapp

Book Title: Prohibition Wine: A True Story of One Woman’s Daring in Twentieth-Century America

Book Genre: Biography

Release Date: May 25, 2021

Publisher: She Writes Press

Welcome, Marian! Please tell us a bit about your book.

Rebecca Goldberg, a poor young widow with six children living in 1920s rural Massachusetts had a choice to make: take her older kids out of school and send them to work or break the law by selling illegal alcohol during Prohibition. It was clear to her – break the law. What would you do?

What was the spark? What drew you to this topic? What made you want to tell this particular story? 

I never knew my grandmother, Rebecca Goldberg, yet her story was an intimate part of  my childhood. Whenever my dad, uncles, and aunt got together, and after their catching-up discussions, the conversation always turned to memories of rural Wilmington, MA where they mostly grew up. They talked about living in a chicken coop, endless daily chores, school, their father’s death, and how their widowed mother sold illegal alcohol to help put food on the table. I listened, trying to imagine what it was like. In my youthful naiveté, it all sounded romantic. Of course, the reality of poverty wasn’t romantic at all.

My dad and an uncle wrote poignant stream-of-consciousness biographies and my aunt recorded her recollections. For many years, I thought that someday I would consolidate their reminiscences into a single manuscript about their childhoods. But, one random mid-summer morning I awoke with unshakable clarity that I had to write about their mother – not about them. I realized that she was the foundational inspiration for my book. She was the one who held her family together under mind-blunting and bone-wearying circumstances, and she did it because she saw that as her only option.

When I recognized that my grandmother had to be the heart of the book, I set off on a journey of learning. Some information existed concretely in newspaper articles or cemetery headstones. Other pieces of her life were forever hidden because no one had the forethought to ask the questions and, consequentially, there were no answers. To truly understand her, I had to acknowledge and list the things I didn’t know, and get to work.

What was your research process like for Prohibition Wine?

First were mysteries about my grandmother’s early life: where she came from, her family, and getting to America. Next were life experiences, especially for Jews, in the Russian Empire: culture, society, politics, and religion. Then, what America was like for her when she arrived: economic circumstances for immigrants, survival, housing, or family traditions. Once here, how did she build her own family: find a husband, bear, lose, and raise children, and becoming a widow.  

All of these arenas required different research avenues. For my grandmother’s life in the old country I read about shtetls, the city of Vilna, interactions with local peasants and Cossacks, and anti-Semitism. Getting to America involved dives into immigration records through Ancestry.com and also exploring the routes that immigrants took to get here. I read about women’s roles in Jewish families, arranging marriages, and marital relationships. Health issues, especially related to reproduction and child-bearing, and common deadly disease and injuries in her era surfaced as an important topic. I learned how people got around before anyone had an automobile. I read many numbers of books and articles on Prohibition – its history, regulations, enactment, enforcement, and the creative ways that people devised to defy the law. I also read about the involvement of Jews in the alcohol trade in general, and also their role during Prohibition.

From your perspective, what’s the hardest thing about writing and researching? And what do you love most about it?

The hardest thing for me was not being able to answer certain questions. When that happened, I had to make a best guess, but could never be certain that I had reached the truth. For example, I could never identify the exact route that my grandmother and her sisters took from Vilna, Lithuania to the port of Hamburg, Germany. I read about the various courses that people used and picked one that seemed most likely. As much as I searched, I could never find the immigration records for Rebecca’s oldest sister. She got here but I don’t know how and when. This feels like unfinished business. I plan to keep searching.

I loved doing the research for this book. I gained insights into all of the topics and themes I had laid out. My investigations deepened my understanding and respect for the decisions and actions that my grandmother, father, aunt, and uncles took, and their ability to make it through fraught, unforgiving times.   

How are you adjusting to promoting a book during a pandemic? 

Fortunately for me, there was a cohort of She Writes Press authors who paved the way for how to promote books during a pandemic. I am able to benefit from their pioneering spirit and achievements. They figured out how to work with books stores and other venues for launches and promotions. 

Because of this, it has not been difficult for me. My publicist had also learned how to do pandemic-confined publicity. I am now gliding into all of this previous work. In some ways, the pandemic has helped boost publicity and book sales. With virtual events, it is possible to reach many more people in a broader geographic spectrum. Book sales have been strong during the pandemic as more people have been limited in their ability to go outside of their homes for cultural connections.  

What’s capturing your imagination these days outside of reading and writing?

Certain issues are capturing my attention and I try to respond when I think I have something to say. I am deeply troubled by physical and verbal attacks on groups who are minorities in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of these prejudicial acts and attitudes are not new, but indicative of long-standing hatreds that exist in segments of our society. Any progress that we thought we had made seems to be threatened by what appears to be deeply embedded and reemergent intolerance. The recent verdict in the George Floyd murder case is a good, but possibly a very tenuous step forward. I have recently published an article in my regular (ten-year) column for my local newspaper, the Newton (MA) TAB about hatred towards Asians. https://www.wickedlocal.com/story/newton-tab/2021/03/30/newton-columnist-whats-best-way-handle-national-tragedies/4810309001/ I try to fight injustices by writing about them, but don’t know if it does any good.

Any new writing projects in the works?

I have a small stack of in-the-works and ideas for future book projects.

I have already started a book about a group of now 80+ year old women (of which I am a member) who came together as friends in South Providence, RI, when we were about age twelve. We still see ourselves as a unit even though we live all over the country, and, sorrowfully, some of us have died. I am exploring why we formed in the first place and why we are still together.

I have in mind several other possibilities: an exploration of ageism (I have written a lot about aging); using leftovers (I hate to waste food and like to cook); plus a few more ideas.

The challenge is staying creative as I am acutely aware of the years that are simply and automatically ticking away.

Where can readers find you?

Website:       https://marianleahknapp.com/

Facebook:     https://www.facebook.com/marian.l.knapp

Events for Prohibition Wine:        

Dates (2021)EventVenue/format
May 25, 7 pmBelmont BooksVirtual Book Launch
July 20 7:00 – 8:00 pmNewton Free Library and the Newton Department of Senior Services/Senior Center*Virtual Author Event
Thursday, July 22 at 7:00 PMWilmington Public Library*This will be part of a month-long community read of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – Knapp will bring a contrasting perspective from the life that her grandmother led in Wilmington during Prohibition. Gatsby was published in 1925, the year her grandmother got caught for selling illegal alcohol.
October 6, 2021, 7:00 p.m.Hadassah Southern New England*Author Presentation

Thank you, Marian! Prohibition Wine is OUT NOW.

In 1918, Rebecca Goldberg—a Jewish immigrant from the Russian Empire living in rural Wilmington, Massachusetts—lost her husband, Nathan, to a railroad accident, a tragedy that left her alone with six children to raise. To support the family after Nathan’s death, Rebecca continued work she’d done for years: keeping chickens. Once or twice a week, with a suitcase full of fresh eggs in one hand and a child in the other, she delivered her product to relatives and friends in and around Boston.

Then, in 1920—right at the start of Prohibition—one of Rebecca’s customers suggested that she start selling alcoholic beverages in addition to her eggs to add to her meagre income. He would provide his homemade raw alcohol; Rebecca would turn it into something drinkable and sell it to new customers in Wilmington. Desperate to feed her family and keep them together, and determined to make sure her kids would all graduate from high school, Rebecca agreed—making herself a wary participant in the illegal alcohol trade.

Rebecca’s business grew slowly and surreptitiously until 1925, when she was caught and summoned to appear before a judge. Fortunately for her, the chief of police was one of her customers, and when he spoke highly of her character before the court, all charges were dropped. Her case made headline news—and she made history.

Bio:

Marian Leah Knapp is a writer and community activist. Her previously published books include Aging in Places: Reflective Preparation for the Future, A Steadfast Spirit: The Essence of Caregiving, and, with Vivien Goldman, The Outermost Cape: Encountering Time. For more than ten years, she has written a regular column Aging in Places for the Newton (MA) TAB. When Marian was sixty-four years old, she went back to school to obtain a PhD. She passed her dissertation defense right before her seventieth birthday. Marian lives in Chestnut Hill, MA.