St Paul author mines the story of a bootlegging relative for novel

Mary DesJarlais
Mary DesJarlais knew little about her great-aunt Dorie LaValle, but through research and family stories she wrote a novel based on Dorie's life as a bootlegger
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When St Paul writer Mary Desjarlais needed a character for her first novel, she had to go no further than a photograph of her great aunts. She knew one of them made her living as a bootlegger in rural Minnesota during Prohibition.

Mary DesJarlais says she doesn't know a lot about her great aunt Dorie. There's even some question about how to pronounce her name, Dorie LaValle which is also the title of Desjarlais' book.

"Dorie lah-VALL,' says DesJarlais. "Or LAH-vallee. Actually the family pronounces it either way. They do! I like Dorie LAH-valee."

The book grew out of a writing class taught at Saint Kate's by author Jonis Agee. She assigned students the task of writing about a relative about who they knew little.

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DesJarlais immediately remembered the expression she saw in a vintage picture of her great-aunt Dorie.

She lived in rural Osseo, just north of Minneapolis in the 1920s. Dorie posed with her sisters. But while they were crowded together, Dorie stood off to one side, looking determined.

"This was a woman who got tired of being poor," DesJarlais said. "They were farmers, the land was not able to yield a good crop and she thought, 'What can I do to make some money?' Prohibition was raging. People wanted a drink. She decided to take that opportunity."

The image of the Roaring Twenties nowadays is one of jazz clubs and glamor. But as she talked to family members and researched Osseo history Desjarlais learned the bootlegging life particularly in rural areas was hard, and dangerous.

"If you were running a still, someone could come and shoot you to take over the business," she said. "If you had money in your pocket from a run, they could hit you over the head and rob you. The cops were in on it. The Feds were in on it. The gangsters were all over the place and so I kind of went with that tone, and I just wanted to tell this story of this woman who was up against all odds and was kind of fearless."

In the novel DesJarlais shows there was little sparkle in the life of a small town bootlegger. There are no glitzy speakeasies for Dorie - just a still in a deserted barn and a widespread understanding the remote Lavalle farm was the place to go if you had a thirst.

In one scene in the book Dorie opens her kitchen to local dairy farmers.

'Dorie smiled, enjoying the moment when all the regulars hung on her next word. They reminded her of ravenous dogs as she moved the full pan of scraps back and forth in front of their slobbering maws. She never sat at the table with the men who came to drink in her kitchen, instead preferred to circle the table and tell her jokes. "Come on, tell us!" the Schumacher brothers begged. Dorie rolled her eyes and said, "Nah, you've heard this one before."'

DesJarlais describes how other women in the community shun Dorie because of what she does, and also how the potent liquor permanently damages some of her regulars, including her own husband. Things get really hairy when she attracts the attention of a Chicago mob family.

Desjarlais says she wanted to capture how tough women like Dorie had to be.

"I think there is just a lot of that amalgam of midwestern farmwoman, that's a lot of Dorie. You just had to do everything. You were feeding farmhands, you were the medical doctor when you couldn't find someone.

And you were often the mother, not only raising your own children, but also those of family members and friends who had died.

"There was often hardship and the women that were successful just rose up to it."

Desjarlais is learning as a new author in today's economy she's got to rise up to it too, get out, meet people and sell her books. She'll read from "Dorie Lavalle" on July 12 at Common Good Books, 165 Western Avenue North in St Paul. She says for someone who'd rather sit in a room and write, it's quite uncomfortable.

"You throw yourself into dangerous situations all the time," she laughs.

It's a bit like being a bootlegger.