Review: The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels - David Liss

The Whiskey Rebels is a historical fiction novel set in the late 1700’s, after the Revolutionary War.  I don’t normally read much historical fiction, unless it has some sort of science fiction or fantasy element to it, but I enjoyed this book quite a bit.  I don’t know the history from this time period very well, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but it came across as being plausible and consistent with what little I do know.  Although there are real historical characters in the book, they are not the main characters.  The story alternates between the first person perspectives of two fictional characters: Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott.  

Ethan Saunders was a spy for America during the war but he was falsely accused of treason and so he is in disgrace.  At the beginning of the story he spends most of his time drinking, racking up debt, and getting himself into trouble.  He lies easily and he only keeps his word if it’s convenient.  He is, in general, quite a scoundrel and the type of character who would normally annoy me to no end because he creates many of his own problems.  However, he is really funny.  Reading from his perspective was amusing because he often had a rather deluded view of himself and of people’s reaction to him.  Despite this, the author somehow managed to clearly convey when Ethan’s account of matters was accurate and when he was deluding himself.  Ethan’s sarcasm is also funny.  He stumbles upon a plot to destroy the Bank of the United States, a project of Alexander Hamilton, and he dusts off his spying skills and tries to learn what’s going on.  Ethan’s perspective was the one I enjoyed reading the most and I chuckled quite a bit during his parts.

Joan Maycott's story starts a little further in the past than Ethan’s.  She starts off as a young, idealistic girl with ambitions to write an American novel.  Early on in the story, she gets married and moves west with her husband.  It’s difficult to explain her part in the story without spoiling anything, but she and her husband are presented with a lot of challenges in life and Joan becomes quite determined to do something about the various injustices they endure.  Her path eventually crosses with Ethan’s.  There comes a point in the story where, since her part of the story is slightly behind Ethan’s, we get to see some events from both perspectives.  First we see them through Ethan’s perspective, and then later we see them through Joan’s and gain a better understand of what was really happening.  The two timelines converged at around the 80% mark.  

I enjoyed Joan’s part of the story, but not quite as much as I enjoyed Ethan’s.  Her story was much less humorous and had more drama.  Joan was smart and had a knack for figuring things out.  She came up with clever ways to manipulate situations to bring about desired events.  Because of her apparent intelligence, I found myself particularly frustrated with the way she handled some things.  She reacted to the immediate situation and didn’t consider the long-term consequences of her actions, nor did she fully investigate things to make sure she had all of the facts.  She also had a tendency to be manipulative and she used people to accomplish her vision of the greater good without much concern for the negative effect it might have on those people she used.  Although she seemed at first like the more moral and likeable character of the two, I found that I liked her less as the story went on.

The story had a mystery element to it and it was interesting to try to keep track of all the different players and figure out where they fit into events.  There were some connections I failed to make on my own and, after they were revealed, I was mentally smacking myself in the head because I knew I should have seen them on my own.  However, there were a few times when characters seemed to understand or intuitively realize things without any realistic explanation.  I was also pulled out of the story a few times when characters who hadn’t really spent that much time around each other managed to act perfectly in sync without discussing their plan in advance.  

Overall, the story held my interest very well.  There were a few moments when I felt like the story was starting to drag, but it always picked back up shortly thereafter.  I thought the ending was satisfying.  All of my open questions were wrapped up, and I was given a general idea about how things turned out for both Ethan and Joan.