The Whiskey Rebels is David Liss' historical thriller set in Philadelphia, New York, and western Pennsylvania in the 1780s and 1790s. The book is told from the alternating points of view of the two main characters, Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott. Ethan's story takes place in 1792, and Joan's begins about a decade earlier. Eventually, the two characters' paths will cross, but at first you don't know how and when, and part of the suspense of the novel is figuring out how the two stories will intersect.
Ethan Saunders, a charming rogue, was one of George Washington's top spies during the Revolutionary War, but he was disgraced and his career in the army ruined after he was falsely accused of treason. Ethan has always thought Alexander Hamilton was responsible for his ruin, but, towards the beginning of the novel, he finds out this was not so, and, in fact, Hamilton saved him by not allowing him to be formally charged with treason. The suspicion alone was enough to ruin him. Now Ethan is a drunk, gambler, and womanizer, but soon he sees a chance of redemption. Before his disgrace, Ethan had been in love with Cynthia, the daughter of his mentor who was ruined along with him, but when she heard of his downfall, she married another man. When her husband, Jacob Pearson, an investor in Hamilton's Bank of the United States, goes missing, and there are threats against Cynthia and her children, Ethan decides to find Pearson, especially when he finds out that Hamilton, who at this time is Secretary of the Treasury, is also interested in discovering what happened to him. He thinks success in his search for the missing man will redeem him in Hamilton's eyes and bring him back into favor. As Ethan soon finds, Pearson's disappearance is only part of an intricate plot against the Bank of the United States, and much more is at stake than he ever realized--even the fate of the republic itself.
Joan Maycott is a farmer's daughter who wants to write a novel, even though she realizes she does not have enough life experience to write one. She marries Andrew, a Revolutionary War veteran who has not had much success in his carpentry business. When financial speculator William Duer, an associate of Hamilton's, offers Joan and Andrew a deal, she leaps at the chance: Andrew will trade in his war debt for land in the western Pennsylvania frontier. Joan believes her experience in the west will give her material for her novel. Soon Joan and Andrew realize they have been tricked: Duer has sold them a worthless piece of forest land, when he had promised them farmland, and he hasn't even sold it outright, but only sold them the right to use it. The whole area is under the control of a cruel landlord, who promises the couple a piece of farmland if Joan will sleep with him. She absolutely refuses, and the landlord keeps finding ways to make life difficult for the couple. Joan and Andrew survive under brutal conditions, in an area full of rough men. Then their fortunes change when Andrew discovers a new method of distilling whiskey. His whiskey is more flavorful than anything the people in the area have tasted before, and Joan and Andrew prosper. But then Hamilton's tax on whiskey, which he uses to fund the Bank of the United States, ruins their lives. Andrew is killed in a confrontation with the landlord and his henchmen, and Joan, now a widow, is determined to get her revenge on Hamilton and Duer, the man who tricked her and her husband into buying the land in the first place. Along with several of her friends from the frontier, Joan travels to Philadelphia and concocts a plot to destroy the Bank of the United States by getting people to sell their shares and invest in another bank, called the Million Bank. She hopes to cause a financial panic that will ruin Hamilton and Duer.
The two protagonists, Ethan and Joan, find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, with Ethan trying to save the bank and Joan trying to cause it to fail. As it turns out, Joan is manipulating Ethan in a way he never suspects, and eventually they become both allies and enemies. Which of the two will prevail? The Whiskey Rebels is a highly suspenseful novel, with an intricate plot and many twists and turns. The reader learns a lot about the financial world of the late 18th century United States, and how business was conducted. At that time, people traded stocks in coffeehouses and taverns, and a coffeehouse on Wall Street was one of the principal locations where trading took place.
Ethan and Joan are both fascinating characters, with many flaws, and the reader feels sympathy for both of them. I wasn't sure I was going to like Ethan at first, but he grew on me. He is a charming character, with a great sense of humor. Joan is manipulative, and will do anything to get what she wants, but she has good reasons for what she does. Even though the protagonists are opposed to each other through most of the book, you find yourself rooting for each protagonist in his or her chapters. Although Ethan and Joan are fictional, Liss portrays many historical characters, especially Hamilton and Duer, in his novel. Hamilton comes off as a very complex character. Joan sees him as a villain, and so does Ethan at first, even though he later realizes it was Hamilton who rescued what is left of his reputation. In the end, Hamilton comes across as not exactly a hero, but definitely not a villain, either. Duer, on the other hand, is a true villain, a man for whom greed is everything, and who cares nothing about ruining people's lives in order to make more money. You find yourself hoping to witness his downfall. This was a world where greed and financial speculation ran rampant, and Liss portrays it very well. The book was published in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis and, as Liss says in an interview at the end, this was no coincidence. I highly recommend the book as both a thriller and a portrait of the United States in the years following the Revolutionary War.
The Whiskey Rebels is available from the Hatcher Graudate Library.