Sunday, July 24, 2011

234 (2011 #39). The Whiskey Rebels

by David Liss,
read by Christopher Lane

This is historical fiction set in Philadelphia, New York City, and western Pennsylvania, mostly in early 1792, but with flashbacks to the summer of 1781.

The book has two plots that ultimately intertwine in 1792.  Ethan Saunders tells his story, all set in 1792.  He is a former Revolutionary War spy who was accused of treason and lives a wasted life after - until he is contacted by the woman he loves, Cynthia Fleet Pearson, the daughter of his former spying partner, when she is in trouble.

The other story is told by Joan Claybrook Maycott, who is a young woman in 1781, beautiful yet capable, planning to write the great American novel.  She meets and marries Andrew Maycott, who trades his then-worthless war pension for land on the frontier in western Pennsylvania.  The two of them go through all sorts of horrors on the way to and in the frontier, and Andrew ultimately becomes a talented whiskey distiller.

The historical events behind the story are the financial Panic of 1792, and the whiskey excise tax that ultimately led to the Whiskey Rebellion insurrections in 1794.  Liss has built an exciting historical thriller that invents an incident leading to the former and tied to the latter.  While Ethan and Joan are fictional, the book is full of real historical figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, and lesser-known-but-no-less-real people like William Duer, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and James and Maria Reynolds.  As with all good historical fiction, I've been inspired to learn more about these real people and events.

Liss makes all his characters interesting, even minor ones (who aren't real), such as Ethan's associates Lavien and Leonidas, and Joan's ally Skye.  It was interesting that as the book went on, I found Ethan becoming more likeable, and Joan less so.  Ethan's character flaws became more understandable as I learned more about his background, and his wit was entertaining.  Joan's character flaws became more visible as the book went on, yet I could understand and somewhat sympathize with her motives, and she was a strong, intelligent female, particularly unusual for that time period.  Joan's story has an epilogue in 1804, but not Ethan's, which makes me think we could see another book featuring him.

Actor Christopher Lane reads the audiobook.  He is wonderful as Ethan, and creates a unique voice for every male character in the book.  Unfortunately, the women (not as many, fortunately) more or less sound the same.  Since the book is written in the first person from both Ethan's and Joan's viewpoints, I think Brilliance Audio should have found a female to read Joan's chapters (and provide her voice and that of other female characters throughout the book).  I think it would have made a more compelling audiobook.  In the plus column, though, Brilliance did provide music to signal the beginning and ends of discs (as well as a separate voice providing disc numbers), and repeated the last few sentences from the end of a disc at the beginning of the next.

I liked this book enough that I will seek out other works by David Liss to read.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a hardbound edition were borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

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