Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Whiskey Rebels

Title: The Whiskey Rebels
 Author: David Liss
Year: 2008
Genre: Historical fiction/Thriller
Rating: 1

We all believe that we know what America is, don't we? After living here our whole lives and being so saturated with the ideas, values, concepts, and freedoms of this grand experiment of a country, we think we know what constitutes our society and freedoms. But that's just the trouble-- when we think we know what is right, what happens when a dilemma comes from within? If we must adapt our values, how do we adjust afterwards?
These are the questions that David Liss addresses in his finest novel yet, The Whiskey Rebels. Deeply American in conception and execution, we see in its pages a wrenching question of patriotism versus justice: if the country that nurtured you is unjust, is it our duty to rebel and right the wrongs? Or does that simply fall under the category of revenge? In a gritty story woven with masterfully tangled threads, Liss explores the conflict and is brave enough not to offer an absolute answer.
Split into two intertwining narratives, the book follows the tale of the disgraced Captain Ethan Saunders, an alcohol-sodden ex-spy destitute in Philadelphia, and that of Joan Maycott, a grievously wronged pioneer on the western border of Pennsylvania. We pick up the story in early 1792, an era of tangled politics and tenuous economics, ruled by veterans and strongly opposed idealists like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Saunders, by all appearances a disreputable, philandering ruin of a man, soon becomes caught up in a complicated web of events involving the disappearance of a former love's husband, mysterious strangers, and the fragile Bank of the United States. Someone threatens the Bank, and despite warnings from Hamilton and several agents, he gets deeper and deeper into the threats against it-- and him.
The parallel story is one of tragedy, deception, and failed dreams-- and vaguely reminiscent of the tales of unemployment, foreclosure, and woe from today. Told in the format of a memoir, we meet Joan Maycott when she is just a child and follow her from her family's farm in rural New York through her marriage to Andrew Maycott, their removal to New York City (which Liss evokes in all its glorious 18th century squalor and improvement upheaval), and to the barren, hopeless land west of Pittsburgh. There, she and her husband are beset by difficulty, oppression, and before long it is all that they can take before being inspired to rebellion.
Liss has clearly improved as a writer since his bestsellers A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader. Here his characters are deeper, more complex, and passionate, both in writing and in action, without losing that lighthearted charm that the author is so well known for. Ethan Saunders is a marvelous conundrum of a character, a murky mixture of honorable patriotism with nefarious lechery with a sprinkle of alcohol addiction thrown in. He is universally despised for being a scoundrel by his peers, but is simultaneously respected for his skill as a spy and honor for participation in the Revolutionary War.
One of the things that makes The Whiskey Rebels so fascinating is its particular focus on the post-Revolutionary America. Where the end of the 18th century was a period of enlightenment, bettering education, and expanding scientific horizons in Europe, it was a dismal, confusing tangle in the brand-new United States, and no one knew if this enormous experiment was going to succeed or collapse into shards of anarchy. Oftentimes, the two decades following the Revolution are skipped in the study of history, which is surprising-- during those twenty years, our Constitution was written, the economics of our country shook but stood firm, and the Whiskey Rebellion rose and was put down. Many important events that shaped us happened quickly after the Revolution, and Liss has finally opened up those years in this brilliant novel.
Another interesting relationship is that of Saunders with his slave, Leonidas. Most often, the master-slave relationship is exploitative, cruel, and abusive, but there were exceptions-- those more akin to a friendship. Sure enough, they were rare, but there are exceptions to every rule, and Liss has portrayed a fascinating co-dependency between Leonidas, a well-educated Americanized African, and Saunders, a gruff, lonely military fellow who won Leonidas in a game of cards. We spend the whole book guessing at whether he hates Saunders, disrespects him, or grudgingly likes him, and there are plenty of laughs along the way.
But perhaps the most important feature of The Whiskey Rebels is the questions that it raises about patriotism. Most of us regard ourselves as patriots if we support our troops, sing the national anthem, and raise a toast on Independence Day-- but what does it really mean to be a patriot? Is it just loyalty to one's country, or is it also an innate sense of responsibility, of holding one's government in check? And if the people are wronged, is it the patriot's duty to change the government to right those wrongs?
This masterful, thoroughly American work is available on Amazon for $10.20 in paperback, or on the Kindle for $12.00. In this day and age of questions and the changing American social landscape, it's important to understand our past and our duty as a people to our country. Novels may be fiction, but there are important truths buried even in the most fanciful of stories, and there are momentously important ones here.
On that note, happy election season!

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