The Whiskey Rebels
by David Liss
Plot Summary from Amazon.com: 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 fiancée, 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 two narrators tell their stories simultaneously; first a chapter from Ethan's life and then a chapter from Joan's. Joan's narration generally takes place several months before Ethan's, and if you don't pay attention to dates it get confusing, especially when she starts talking about future plans that have already taken place in Ethan's story. But the two main characters have very different voices, so you'll never be confused about which narrator is speaking.
Ethan Saunders is the perfect rake, using tricks and tall tales to keep a mug of ale in one hand and a woman in the other. Yet there is a streak of nobility in him that surfaces time and again, revealing the good man beneath the alcoholic stupor – but it is quickly squashed back down before it can get very far. For example, Saunders promised to free his slave Leonidas when he turned twenty-one. How noble. Saunders has the paperwork filled out and ready to go; Leonidas is technically free. But Saunders doesn't tell him, and Leonidas continues to treat him as his master . What a jerk. Yet even before the papers were created, Saunders gave Leonidas an extraordinary amount of freedom. Leonidas lives separately from Saunders, in another part of Philadelphia, and Saunders is forbidden from bothering him when he is “off-hours.” Since Saunders doesn't often require Leonidas' presence when getting wasted or seducing wealthy women, Leonidas is able to hire himself out and earn money. Their relationship is quite unusual, and highlights the character flaws and conflicts that make Saunders a thoroughly enjoyable character. For him alone, the book is worth your time.
Joan Maycott, the other storyteller, doesn't have the same appeal as Ethan Saunders because she doesn't have the same internal dual between right and wrong. She is a determined woman struggling to write the first American novel – that is, a book in a distinct American style and voice, rather than an imitation of the writings of Europe – while simultaneously trying to build a new life with her husband on the outskirts of civilization. Maycott is usually convinced of the righteousness of her cause and rarely without goals to pursue, and her sheer willpower is something to be admired. But with a star like Ethan Saunders, Joan Maycott doesn't have much of a chance to shine.
The historical fiction found in this story uses real events, like the 1792 Financial Panic, foundation of America's bank, and the struggles between competing visions for the new nation to tell the story. Real historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are key characters. The timing of the publication of this book is quite fortuitous on David Liss' part (or is it calculated?) because of the many parallels that can be drawn between the financial troubles of his fledgling nation and the current recession America finds itself in. It's full of action, and highly entertaining, with spies running all over the place competing to solve the mysteries that pile up one after another. Read up!