Saturday, March 14, 2009

David Liss: The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is the best historic novel I’ve read in a long time. I wasn’t expecting that. I expected it to be interesting, and informative, but not this much. On the other hand, it was not quite as much about the Whiskey Rebellion as I expected.

The 1790s were an important time in the establishment of the United States. The Constitution was still new, and Washington was still serving as the first President. Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, was trying to establish a firm financial base for the new country, specifically through strong banking. Thomas Jefferson, as a perpetual debtor farmer, hated banks. He thought banks, and a requirement to repay loans to wealthy people, represented everything the Revolution fought against. He and Hamilton were bitter enemies.

Hamilton wanted to fund his financial reforms with a tax on whiskey. That was fine in most of the country, but devastating on the western frontier. With bad roads between East and West, and the rivers still blocked by the Spanish at New Orleans, the western settlers had no way of moving bulk produce to market. Their only solution was to distill their crops into whiskey, which could be shipped east and converted to cash. Ultimately Washington had to dispatch troops to Western Pennsylvania to put down a small revolt – The Whiskey Rebellion.

The Whiskey Rebels is about this situation, but stops short of the actual rebellion. We have two main characters whose paths cross, and stories intertwine.

Ethan Saunders is a former spy in George Washington’s service. Just before the end of the war, he was falsely accused of treason. Alexander Hamilton made him resign from the Army and disappear rather than face charges. Now, in 1792, Saunders is a drunken womanizer with a ruined reputation, and a strong grudge – no hatred – for Hamilton. He lurks in the darker corners of the nation’s capital, Philadelphia. As the story unfolds, he becomes a more likeable character. He cuts back on the drink, and we start to see the quick thinking that kept him alive behind British lines. But he is still better at taking a beating than at fighting his way out of a problem.

After a chapter with Saunders, we flash back to 1781 to meet Joan Maycott. She is a very strong minded, decisive woman. She really is a powerful and inspiring character. Just before Hamilton’s Treasury Department starts redeeming old war debt, her husband trades his presumably worthless paper pay for land in Western Pennsylvania. Once the Maycotts get out there they learn that they’ve been cheated on both ends. They only have a lease, not title to the western lands. And the land is not the civilized Garden of Eden that they were promised. But they persevere through a variety of hardships.

Saunders is dragged into current political struggles, and reluctantly, is helping Hamilton defend his new Bank of the United States. Maycott ultimately is drawn back to Philadelphia looking for revenge against the speculators who cheated her and her husband, including, in her mind, Hamilton and his Bank of the United States.

The use of flash back between the Saunders and Maycott chapters is very effective, but also quite unusual. We are following along with Saunders in 1792 “real time”, while following Maycott in flashback through 1791 and into 1792. Ultimately the Maycott strand and the Saunders strand unite in “real time”. But the unusual twist is that the stories don’t join until well after the two have met. So we see Saunders interacting with Maycott from his perspective. Then several chapters later we see the same interactions from Maycott’s perspective as the flash backs approach “real time”. I just loved it.

The Whiskey Rebels gives us a very good look at an interesting, but little explored part of US history. Based on other reading, I believe the history is accurate. The characters are exceptional. The story of the country going through financial crisis is more relevant than the author could have expected. Obviously I need to read more books by David Liss.


Kit Bradley said...

That sounds like a good read. The book I'm reading now (and will report on soon) also follows several characters in two time frames -- WWII and "today." It's interesting seeing the stories come together as I approach the end.

How did you happen upon David Liss?

Nate Bradley said...

The Whiskey Rebels was a Book of the Month Club recommendation. Their description made it sound good, so I added it to my "watch for" list. (I don't often get books from Book of the Month Club because they won't tell me if I'm getting a full size original edition, or an undersized club edition.)

I know from the list inside the book that this is not Liss' first book. So I'm determined to watch for more./