The country is in dire economic straits. The Department of Treasury takes unprecedented steps to secure the nation’s financial strength, centralizing financial institutions and placing “sin taxes” upon popular, but unhealthy, goods. Some feel disenfranchised by their country, railing against these actions as running counter to their patriotic beliefs, couching their rhetoric in revolutionary terms. A tale plucked from today’s headlines? No…it’s the backdrop of David Liss’ post-colonial page-turner The Whiskey Rebels.
The novel alternates between two narrators: Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott. Saunders is a rakish and clever disgraced Revolutionary spy, womanizer, and professional drunkard. Toward the end of the war both he and his mentor, Fleet, were implicated in a plot to sell secrets to the British. Both were dismissed from the army quietly—but not quietly enough—by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Fleet began frequenting bars and soon died in a brawl. Ethan broke off his engagement with Fleet’s daughter Cynthia and began his slow decline via drink and debauchery. As the novel opens, Saunders is about to commit suicide by duel but begins his nascent reformation when his former fiancé and love-of-his-life Cynthia Pearson (nee Fleet) solicits his aid to find her missing husband Jacob. Ethan invokes all of his considerable skills as his investigations lead him into an elaborate plot to ruin Hamilton’s Bank of the United States. Joan Maycott is a strong-willed, self-educated woman who marries a veteran of the Revolution and has dreams of writing the first truly American novel. After negotiating a land deal with financier William Duer, the two head to the wilds of western Pennsylvania to carve out a new life for themselves. Here they encounter degradation and humiliation at the hands of Colonel Tindall, the would-be despot of Pittsburgh who rules the region through terror and madness and has partnered with Duer to defraud veterans of their war debts. A band of “whiskey boys” led by Dalton, an Irish distiller, help the Maycotts establish themselves and soon work to push back against Tindall and the what they see as the systemic corruption that stems from Hamiltonian influence in the new republic. After she loses everything she holds dear at the hands of Tindall, she initiates an elaborate plot of revenge against those that would oppress the republican and frontier spirit.
The juxtaposition of the two stories works well due to Liss’ structuring of the novel and due to the characters of the narrators. While both narratives are distinct and could work well on their own, they mesh nicely and work together to give the novel more depth. Often Saunders would meet one of the supporting characters in one context; then, in Maycott’s narrative, that character would be revealed for who they really were and why their path had crossed with Saunders. Saunders’ tale reads like good adventure fiction with a swashbuckling, witty character taking on much more than he can probably handle but doing with verve and aplomb. Joan Maycott’s story is harrowing, dark, and often uncomfortable. The reader learns more about Joan’s back-story because it is necessary in order to understand her actions better as the novel progresses. She intrigued me primarily because I was unsure if her patriotic motivations were as genuine as her co-conspirators believed or if they were simply a convenient and rational explanation for a pathological desire for revenge. Her story is more The Count of Monte Cristo to Saunders’ Three Musketeers but together they form a complex and satisfying novel.
Charisma is both of these characters’ primary attribute; both wield it to achieve their ends though each has a distinctive personality and motive. They instinctively attract people to them and are able to move in all social circles, both high and low, with skill. They instill strong loyalty in their friends and retainers, almost against their better judgment. The relationship between Saunders and his slave Leonidas is particularly interesting. Leonidas resents Saunders’ delay in his long-promised emancipation, but repeatedly demonstrates his devotion and true friendship to a man who is nominally his master (Saunders all but formalizes Leonidas’ freedom; the former spy doesn’t even know where his slave lives and has made a family for himself). For her part, Maycott learns to use her femininity as a strength; not as a seducer but as a way to win the affection and fierce loyalty of those around her. In addition to their leadership abilities, both Saunders and Maycott are highly intelligent out-of-the-box thinkers. Liss could have very easily pitted one more squarely against the other, producing a very interesting Holmes vs. Moriarty relationship. This is not to be, but both characters are so well-matched as to be two sides of the same scheming coin.
I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the book. There are other reviews that I have read that take various inaccuracies to task, but I have always tried to read historical fiction with more emphasis on the fiction. Whether it is a good story told well weighs heavier in the balance for me than whether all of the historical i’s and t’s are dotted and crossed. And the storytelling in The Whiskey Rebels is superb. That being said, Joan and her husband are rather shockingly modern in their outlook. Liss explains some of their more “liberal” social beliefs as being natural outgrowths of the overall revolutionary spirit of the time but I would tend to believe that their tolerance of others, and of each other, would be far more remarkable in the 1790s than it is made out to be.
The Whiskey Rebels is a fast-paced novel of dashing heroics, dastardly villains, picaresque characters, and political intrigue. If not entirely in fitting with history, it is a fittingly complex plot peopled with intriguing characters. There are passages that I had to read aloud to my wife after bursting into appreciative laughter as I pored through the book. I truly hope that Liss returns to the character of Ethan Saunders and shares more of his adventures.