The Whiskey Rebels
by David Liss
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Whiskey Rebels is a thriller about the greed and recklessness which led to the Financial Panic of 1792 and the tensions which caused the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. The Panic of 1792 nearly toppled the fledgling Bank of the United States. During the same period, the federal tax on whiskey intended to fund the Bank's start-up costs met stubborn opposition from frontier whiskey producers who objected to the unfair burdens it placed on them.
Liss's clever plot pits a fictional former spy for George Washington against a gifted frontier woman whose wild streak is intensified by disaster. Both characters, the alcoholic former spy who has hit bottom and the woman whose wits and heart both are sharpened by suffering, contend with the question of to what extent the end can justify the means.
Fast pacing is the essence of a thriller, but for long stretches this one is slowed by its weighty eighteenth century language and numerous scenes which add little to the story's forward movement. In addition, a series of major characters seem artificially designed to please a modern audience: a slave whose utter self-assurance seems unlikely for the time period, an almost savagely courageous Jew, and a woman who challenges the conventions of courtship merely for the sake of challenging them. While one of these characters might not have strained credulity too far, when readers meet all three within the first two chapters, we seem to have landed in Political Correctness World rather than eighteenth century America.
Good editing might have remedied these flaws. It's a shame that something (perhaps pressure to produce a novel on a particular schedule?) short-circuited the editing process that could have produced a thriller of the fine quality of David Liss's other novels. Those who have not read Liss before should probably start with a different book, such as his Edgar-Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper. Liss's fans may appreciate The Whiskey Rebels despite its flaws, because of its perspective on an interesting period of American history neglected by other novelists. (2008, 519 pages)
More about The Whiskey Rebels from Powell's Books
Other historical thrillers by David Liss:
A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), about a Jew whose work as a private detective in eighteenth century London leads him to investigate the death of his estranged father, a stock-jobber. More info
A Spectacle of Corruption (2004), the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper. More info
The Coffee Trader (2003), a stand-alone thriller about an impoverished merchant in seventeenth century Amsterdam who tries to mend his fortunes by speculating in the new commodity of coffee. More info
Nonfiction about the Whiskey Rebellion:
Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising by Leland D. Baldwin (1939, reprinted 1968). More info
The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty by William Hogeland (2006). More info
"The Whiskey Rebellion" at the PBS website
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