Wednesday, May 19, 2010
David Liss's bestselling historical thrillers have been called remarkable and rousing: the perfect combination of scrupulous research and breathless excitement. Now Liss delivers his best novel yet in America in the years after the Revolution, an unstable nation where desperate schemers vie for wealth, power, and a chance to shape a country's destiny.
Ethan Saunders, once among General Washington's most valued spies, now lives in disgrace, haunting the taverns of Philadelphia. An accusation of treason has long since cost him his reputation and his beloved fiancee, Cynthia Pearson, but at his most desperate moment he is recruited for an unlikely task - finding Cynthia's missing husband. To help her, Saunders must serve his old enemy, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who is engaged in a bitter power struggle with political rival Thomas Jefferson over the fragile young nation's first real financial institution: the Bank of the United States.
Meanwhile, Joan Maycott is a young woman married to another Revolutionary War veteran. With the new states unable to support their ex-soldiers, the Maycotts make a desperate gamble: trade the chance of future payment for the hope of a better life on the western Pennsylvania frontier. There, amid hardship and deprivation, they find unlikely friendship and a chance for prosperity with a new method of distilling whiskey. But on an isolated frontier, whiskey is more than a drink; it is currency and power, and the Maycotts' success attracts the brutal attention of men in Hamilton's orbit, men who threaten to destroy all Joan holds dear.
As their causes intertwine, Joan and Saunders - both patriots in their own way - find themselves on opposing sides of a daring scheme that will forever change their lives and their new country. The Whiskey Rebels is a superb rendering of a perilous age and a nation nearly torn apart.
I loved this novel and thought it was an excellent example of historical fiction at it's best.
I had trouble with it at first because I listened to it on audio and there was only one narrator when there should have been two. It's split up between two points of view - both in first person as well. Ethan Saunders is the male protagonist who I had trouble liking at first. I wasn't sure what to make of him. Am I supposed to think of him as a romantic figure or a drunken buffoon? I chose the former, though it took me a while to decide. Ethan, a former spy who carries the ignominy of being unjustly accused a traitor during the last years of the American Revolution has seen better times. When we meet Ethan ten years after his fall from grace, he is disheveled and dirty with no place to live (he's been kicked out of his boarding house.) Bruised and beaten by a cuckolded husband and his minions, he soon finds himself face to face with his old love, Cynthia, and she is in trouble. Despite the fact that she is married, he risks everything to help her and find her missing ass of a husband which causes all sorts of problems for Ethan - but he is a gentleman, even if he is a mess! Through all his trials, he still manages to retain his witty sense of humor and handles the most difficult of situations with aplomb. There is a charm about him that is irresistible. Plus, he hasn't completely lost all his spy antennae for sniffing out intrigue and secrets - nor has he lost his good looks. Despite his recent failings, did I happen to mention his reputation with the ladies?
But the thing that really made me like him and what made him grow on me, was when I when I realized the narrator's voice (Christopher Lane) made him sound exactly like the actor, William Holden! Well, that clinched it for me. Now, I've never seen William Holden in a period eighteenth century movie before, but if he ever was in one - he would be Ethan Saunders! (I happen to love William Holden, btw.)
The other point of view in the novel is a woman, Joan Maycott. If only the publishers had had two different narrators for Ethan and Joan's voices - it would have been a great audio. Lane was right on as Ethan, but his voice for Joan was mechanical and flat. Joan's character is determined and single minded - bent on the destruction of the men who have wronged her, yet I wish they'd used a woman's voice instead for Joan. Though Lane wasn't bad as Joan, it did take away from her character and I didn't like her as much as Ethan. Sometimes her voice would sound mannish and had a hard time differentiating her voice from the other men! Joan becomes almost diabolical in her quest to bring down Hamilton and his men who she holds responsible for ruining her happy life with her husband, Andrew. A would be novelist, she comes up with an ingenious financial scheme to ruin them all. Her pretty face and figure starts out as a hindrance in the story, but becomes an asset as the novel progresses. She learns how to use her feminine wiles to their best advantage before long and uses the men around her like pawns on a chessboard.
Without giving away any spoilers, the gist of the plot is Joan is out to ruin the two men she sees as being responsible for all her woes in Western Pennsylvania. She comes up with an ingenious plan to bring down the Bank of the United States and stop the excise tax on whiskey, plus, make a great amount of money as a result. She enlists the help of her fellow whiskey makers from Pennsylvania to scam some of the biggest players in the stock markets. In some ways, the plan reminded me of "The Sting" - a well orchestrated deception with Joan in the center as the mastermind and all her men around her carrying out her plans.
I was saddened to see what sort of person Joan becomes at the end, she started out so sweet and naive all set to write her novel. The West changes her, as a troubled young man, Phinneas tells her at one point in the book. She becomes too cool and calculating, less loving and compassionate. Despite Joan's transformation, I became fascinated with the story of Joan and Ethan, trying to figure out what the connection was between their stories, their chapters would alternate, he in Philadelphia, she in Pittsburgh. Eventually they come together and join forces, it's a big surprise when they do. The plot is intricate and full of finance, involving the Bank of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, William Duer (a speculator who drove the markets,) and several other interesting characters that make this a vivid portrait of the stock markets in New York and Philadelphia in the fledgling early days of the brand new United States.
For those of you that can't take much violence, I had issues early on in the book. Joan and her husband, Andrew move to the wilderness in western Pennsylania near Pittsburgh. They are tricked into leasing land there, thinking they've bought it and are soon under the thumb of a ruthless landlord. Their treatment is brutal and I was in constant dread of what was going to happen to them. At times I seriously considered going no further and dropping the book, for I can't take too much suspense and worry, I wasn't enjoying it. But, I persevered and stuck with it, and I'm so glad I did! Keep it in mind, the menacing dread and violence ends eventually, but it was hard for me to get through it, but it's over by the half way point.
Liss' many memorable characters besides Ethan and Joan bring this book to life. One I really liked in particular was Leonidas, Ethan's slave. He's more of a companion and peer to Ethan than a servant. Ethan keeps intending to free Leonidas but he's afraid of losing him as a sounding board and friend if he does, and he likes to have Leonidas around to talk to and keep him company. This comes back to bite Ethan in the butt later on on the book. Mr. Lavien, a Jew who works for Hamilton is a disturbing man. He doesn't think twice about using violence as a means to get his way, though I liked his character too. Good to have at your back, but not one to have as an enemy, he and Ethan make an interesting pair. Lavien is a perfect foil for Ethan's joie de vivre.
The whiskey rebels "gang" who are helping Joan have their interesting types too - naturally I liked John Skye the best, an aging Scot (loved the way Lane did his accent) who takes a liking to Joan, though it can never be acted upon. The bad guys: Tindle, Reynolds, Phinneas and his other minions were so frightening on the journey out to Western Pennsylvania, I hated them all and wished every one of them dead! They scared me to death!
I recommend this book highly if you have a head for finance and historical American fiction - or even if you don't. The big scheme to bring down Hamilton's bank, includes a lot of speculating in the markets and buying and selling six percents and four percents - and frankly - a lot of that part of it made me screw up my face, furrow my brows and think. I liked it! :) I hope you will too!