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The Whiskey Rebels — a different take on the Founding Fathers

Posted Sep 20, 2011 Posted by One Comment

On Nov. 10, the Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library will return for the season to discuss The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss.  Here’s a review I wrote around the time the novel was published:

Historical hindsight tends to carry the air of the inevitable. Because we’ve all known so long about the American Revolution and worshiped the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, we assume it was meant to be, that fate decreed our nation would turn out the way it has.

Historical fiction is a useful reminder that these developments were not so inevitable, and that our history turned on human actions, decisions, chance, opportunity and intelligence. “The Whiskey Rebels” is a fine addition to the American story. The novel takes place in a mostly unexamined period, immediately after American independence had been won but the course of the young country was not yet determined.

The government, headed by the Revolutionary hero George Washington, is in Philadelphia. Two members of his Cabinet – Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – are bitter enemies, struggling over whether the country will have a strong federal government or serve as a looser association of states.

But the book’s main characters are fictional. The novel has, at first, two separate threads. The first, starting in 1792, follows Capt. Ethan Saunders, a wreck of a man who served as a spy for the American forces but was drummed out of the Army after he and his mentor were accused of treachery. His mentor’s daughter, whom Saunders loved, marries another man when he refuses to associate her with his shame. And he’s been drowning his sorrows in taverns. Saunders gets drawn back in to national affairs when his lost love’s husband goes missing and he determines to make sure she is in no danger from her husband’s attempts at financial speculation.

The other storyline follows Joan Maycott, a young woman who marries a Revolutionary War veteran and tries to make a go of life on the western Pennsylvania frontier. That story begins in 1781 and at first appears totally unrelated. Maycott and her husband struggle to survive and she secretly harbors grander ambitions: to write the first real American novel. Meanwhile, it turns out her husband has a knack for distilling good whiskey. Naturally, characters and eventually plot start to intersect and the two main characters eventually meet and interact.
Despite the complexity, Liss does a good job setting the scene of Philadelphia as the capital of the new nation, with a form of government the men were basically making up as they went along and Hamilton and Jefferson engaged in their titanic struggle for the direction of the country.

People like the Maycotts, who believe in their new country, are collateral damage when Hamilton decides to raise funds by taxing whiskey, a primary currency on the frontier but one that’s used in barter and thus does not generate cash profits to pay the tax. The settlers, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, see Hamilton’s national bank as a replica of the British system they fought so hard to escape, and see his national bank as “the harbinger of doom, the sign that the American project had failed.”

Meanwhile, back in the coastal cities, nefarious men are plotting to use the new bank to corner the entire nascent American economy. As one character says of these men, their plots are “the dark side of liberty … A man is not hindered by what cannot be done, so twisted men like Duer apply that liberty to their greed.” Liss, whose background is in historical financial thrillers, does a good job describing the financial machinations and even if you don’t follow every strategic nuance, it’s an enjoyable thriller.

Liss does an especially good job setting the scene, in taverns and boarding houses and respectable homes, and occasionally turns an especially nice phrase, like “Pigs roamed freely and grunted their courage at passing carriages.” Our heroes are sympathetic but human, flawed and understandable, and you find yourself rooting for both of them even when their goals are at odds.

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  • Change is in the air | The Bone Island Book Blog said:

    […] country and regular folks are collateral damage to some of the duking. It’s the title for the November Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library so we have lots of copies. The group meets Nov. 10 at the […]