The Whiskey Rebels [NOOK Book]

Overview

David Liss’s bestselling historical thrillers, including A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, have been called remarkable and rousing: the perfect combination of scrupulous research and breathless excitement. Now Liss delivers his best novel yet in an entirely new setting–America in the years after the Revolution, an unstable nation where desperate schemers vie for wealth, power, and a chance to shape a country’s destiny.

Ethan ...
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The Whiskey Rebels

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Overview

David Liss’s bestselling historical thrillers, including A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, have been called remarkable and rousing: the perfect combination of scrupulous research and breathless excitement. Now Liss delivers his best novel yet in an entirely new setting–America in the years after the Revolution, an unstable nation where desperate schemers vie for wealth, power, and a chance to shape a country’s destiny.

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 Whiskey Rebels is a superb rendering of a perilous age and a nation nearly torn apart–and David Liss’s most powerful novel yet.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in and around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York City in the years after the Revolutionary War, this clever thriller from Liss (The Ethical Assassin) follows the adventures of Ethan Saunders, once a valiant spy for General Washington, who's fallen on hard times by war's end. Suspected of treason, Ethan has lost the love of his life, Cynthia, who's married the fiendish Jacob Pearson, an entrepreneur who managed to prosper during the British occupation of Philadelphia. At Cynthia's urging, Ethan agrees to go looking for the missing Jacob, prompted in large part by a desire to redeem his reputation. Meanwhile, the so-called whiskey rebels on the western frontier are trying to bring down the hated Alexander Hamilton and his Bank of the United States. The courageous Ethan is a likable rogue, and even though Ethan spends too much time delving into the complications of 18th-century finance, he can be counted on when the chips are down and the odds against him soar. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Known for suspenseful novels set in the world of 18th-century finance, e.g., the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper, Liss often portrays hard-drinking yet likable scoundrels who thwart conspiracies as complex and labyrinthine as finance capitalism itself. Fans of those earlier books won't be disappointed by his fifth novel, a fast-paced and complex narrative that reimagines the events surrounding the Panic of 1792. The book's main characters are reliably roguish Ethan Saunders and beautiful widow Joan Maycott, who encounter Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and other famous figures of the era. Events get moving when Saunders sets out to find an ex-lover's husband and uncovers a plan to ruin a wealthy financier. As the plot unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the stakes are much higher than personal revenge. Liss portrays post-Revolutionary Philadelphia and New York more effectively than he does the western Pennsylvania frontier, where the villains are somewhat cartoonish, but this detracts only slightly from a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/08.]
—Douglas Southard

Kirkus Reviews
Edgar-winning Liss (The Ethical Assassin, 2006, etc.) channels early American history in a thickly plotted tale of conflicts between revolutionary idealism and fiscal skullduggery. Readers of the author's earlier thrillers starring Benjamin Weaver (A Spectacle of Corruption, 2004, etc.) will note resemblances between that amoral adventurer and this novel's Philadelphia vagrant, Ethan Saunders. Once a captain (and spy) under George Washington's command, Saunders has fallen on hard times. His duplicitous skills are solicited by the woman he loved and lost, Cynthia Pearson, whose husband's endangered state is somehow connected to Federalist Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's creation of a national bank, intended to replace a traditional agrarian culture with one rooted in the quicksand of financial speculation. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, farm girl Joan Claybrook, an autodidact who reads voraciously and dreams of composing the first truly American novel, marries war veteran Andrew Maycott and travels with him to the "western" territory of Pittsburgh, having exchanged payment owed him for military service for land that's actually uncharted wilderness. Liss's research gives the novel an impressive density, as well as a tendency to bog down in redundant declarations of cross-purposes. Hamilton's threat to the young republic's integrity and his widely loathed tax on whiskey set speculators against patriots and slowly-achingly slowly-connect Joan Maycott's progress from sturdy pioneer to wronged woman to prosperous whiskey merchant to relentless avenger with Saunders' cloak-and-dagger misadventures among the villains he's hired to hunt down. Other characters include Saunders'truculent slave Leonidas ("won" in a game of chance) and such luminaries as the complex and elusive Hamilton, poet Philip Freneau (who produces an influential partisan newspaper) and an aged, exhausted Washington. Uneven, sometimes risibly overstuffed narrative that's nevertheless compulsively readable.
From the Publisher
A Conspiracy of Paper
“The plot draws you in from page to page. . . . An evocation of English history that you can happily get lost in for days.”
–The New York Times

“Tremendously smart, assured, and entertaining . . . an intricate mystery, a colorful rogues’ gallery and, improbably, a history lesson on the birth of the stock market.”
–Newsweek

A Spectacle of Corruption
“[A] wonderful book . . . every bit as good as [Liss’s] remarkable debut . . . easily one of the year’s best.”
–The Boston Globe

“[A] rousing sequel of historical intellectual suspense.”
–San Antonio Express-News

The Coffee Trader
“Percolates with seventeenth-century intrigue . . . A story of cutthroat financial schemes, merciless creditors, collapsing markets, and deceitful men . . . In this book, even the hero is no saint.”
USA Today

“An entertaining tale . . . [a] learned page-turner . . . Despite the many characters and plot twists, Mr. Liss keeps his story in graceful motion.”
–The Wall Street Journal

The Barnes & Noble Review
David Liss's new novel, set in an America where financial collapse is imminent, teems with double crosses, political intrigue, concealed identities, blackmail, spies, and sex scandals. The stock market is on a roller-coaster ride, and brokers on the trading floor reek of panic and floppy sweat.

Welcome to 1792.

In his fourth novel, The Whiskey Rebels, Liss moves from the European setting of his previous historical novels to explore a frontier America where determined patriots plot to bring about the collapse of the new Bank of the United States, the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. While this attempt to destroy the bank is fictional, the financial panic of 1792 was real, as was a controversial "whiskey tax." A year earlier, Hamilton had convinced Congress to assume the states' debt from the war by approving a tax on distilled spirits.

The whiskey tax had been approved by Congress as a simple means of helping fund the Bank of the United States. What better way to raise revenues, it had been argued, than to tax a luxury, and a harmful one at that, that many enjoyed? Let the men who would waste their time with strong drink pay for the economic growth of the new nation.

The tax eventually led to a full-scale uprising by owners of small distilleries -- mainly in western Pennsylvania -- who felt they were being unfairly assessed a fluctuating fee while larger distillers were only charged a flat rate. Civil protest led to armed rebellion in 1794, and President George Washington invoked martial law to quell the violence.

The Whiskey Rebels focuses not on the bloody events in western Pennsylvania but instead on the equally treacherous financial chaos that played out in Philadelphia and New York two years earlier. In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow described the tenuous economic bubble facing the new Republic: "Buoyed by credit, the prices of government and bank securities soared to a peak in late January 1792, exceeding any sane levels of valuation....Then euphoria turned to doubt and doubt to despair as shares began a precipitate five-week slide." Surely, Liss's nostrils flared at the scent of collapsing markets -- this was exactly the kind of scenario made for him.

Liss has a well-earned reputation for writing diligently researched novels that chart the beginnings of our complex and often corrupt financial system. A couple of centuries have done little to change the way greedy bureaucrats try to manipulate the economy. When reading novels like Liss's 1999 A Conspiracy of Paper or The Whiskey Rebels, it's not hard to imagine his characters in Armani suits, screaming into cell phones while gesticulating wildly on the exchange floor. Physically, the Wall Street of today looks nothing like the stock market of yesteryear: "[A]ll real business was transacted in nearby taverns and inns -- the trade in government issues, securities, and bank shares transpired in public houses." Back then, Philadelphia was the center of finance, and trade was conducted in coffeehouses where brawling traders got into shouting (and shoving) matches. Each man, Liss writes, had a clerk at his side whose pen "moved with such rapidity that ink sprayed in the air like a black rain."

This is the world in which Ethan Saunders, a former captain during the Revolutionary War, suddenly finds himself a pawn in the game to destroy Hamilton's bank. Once "the cleverest spy of his day" who worked for Washington during the war, Saunders now lives in disgrace, stumbling from tavern to tavern in Philadelphia. An accusation of treason once besmirched his name and cost him his reputation and his fiancée, Cynthia Pearson. As the novel opens, Saunders is hired to find Cynthia's missing husband, a man who has unwisely invested in inflated securities. He soon finds himself embroiled in a deep and far-reaching intrigue.

Saunders' adventures are intertwined with the story of Joan Maycott, wife of another Revolutionary War hero and aspiring novelist in the vein of Jane Austen. After Joan and her husband move to the wilderness of western Pennsylvania and establish a successful whiskey distillery operation, tragedy strikes, and Joan finds herself caught up in the rebels' cause. Like Saunders, Joan often pauses to inject a dose of moralizing into the plot: "We were a land where cleverness and ingenuity bled quickly into chicanery and fraud. How easily, I thought, in an untamed land did the steady energy of ambition become the twitchy mania of greed."

Likewise, when someone asks Saunders, "What drives a man to a wealth that will crush all others?" he replies, "It is the dark side of liberty."

At times, long paragraphs of dialogue come across like dry pages from a Federalist tract. At other times, history seems to overwhelm the novel, and the action slows for expostulation on early American finance and trade. The history lesson is necessary, however, because the plot -- that of the real Whiskey Rebellion and of the novel -- is thick and tangled. Think of Liss as the kind of history professor who keeps his lectures lively simply by his passion for the primitive history of stocks and bonds.

As his other books have shown, Liss's forte is filling his pages with period details that come off the page with the pop of an ember snapping in the hearth. Here, for example, is how Joan describes the first sip of her husband's new recipe for whiskey:

I'd had whiskey before, in quantities I would not have credited in my former life, but here was something entirely different. It was darker, I saw by the light of the fire, amber in color and more viscous. And its flavor -- it was not merely the sickly sweet heat of whiskey, for there was a honey taste to it, perhaps vanilla and maple syrup and even, yes, the lingering tang of dates.

By so effectively transporting us into the past, Liss also brings history forward. Everything old is new again, he seems to be saying, while advising us to keep a nervous eye on the ticker scroll running across CNN. In the end, as one character notes in the novel, the rebels' plot is not about the bank: "It's about averting chaos, riot, and bloodshed and another war of brother against brother. This country is a house of cards, and it will not take much to bring it down." Bellwether words indeed for today's stockbrokers. --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588367303
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 104,959
  • File size: 590 KB

Meet the Author

David Liss is the author of A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, as well as The Ethical Assassin. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.

Biography

David Liss never received his doctorate. According to the tongue-in-cheek F.A.Q.s on the author's web site, this is the second most common question that Liss is asked in interviews. The first, of course, is "are you Jewish?"

Halfway through his dissertation on 18th century British literature and culture, Liss decided to take a shot at writing fiction. His extensive knowledge of early British culture and his Jewish heritage informed the world he would create -- an anarchic, corrupt economic playground in which Jews and Christians forge tenuous bonds in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

For the next few semesters, Liss wrote his dissertation during the school year and his novel during breaks. As time went on, the breaks became longer and longer. Liss found himself ignoring his dissertation and concentrating full time on his fiction, living off of a fellowship grant he had received to finish his studies. The gamble paid off; published in 2000, A Conspiracy of Paper was released to glowing reviews and brisk sales.

A Conspiracy of Paper introduced readers to Benjamin Weaver, the "thief-taker" who is also the protagonist of Liss's third novel, Spectacle of Corruption. Benjamin Weaver is "an outsider in eighteenth-century London: A Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves." Critics and mystery readers immediately took to this "Philip Marlowe done up in a wig and buckles," and A Conspiracy of Paper won Liss the Edgar award for Best First Novel.

The Edgar came as somewhat of a mixed blessing for the young novelist. Liss did not necessarily set out to write a "mystery novel," nor did he feel any particular leanings toward continuing to write in the mystery genre. By winning the Edgar, Liss feared that he would be pigeonholed as "the historical mystery guy." So for his second novel, Liss decided to take a step away from Weaver, further back into the 17th century.

The Coffee Trader tells the tale of Miguel Lienzo, a Jewish trader in Amsterdam who tries to corner the market on a promising new commodity known as coffee. Echoes of our current economic climate surface throughout, and the storyline carries a special poignancy in today's culture of multinational coffee chains.

A Conspiracy of Paper fans finally received their second helping of Benjamin Weaver in 2004, with the release of Spectacle of Corruption. This time around, Weaver escapes from prison and steps incognito into the world of 18th century politics. The setting gives Liss a fresh opportunity to flex his intellectual muscles, creating a fascinating and enlightening portrait of London's political scene.

Liss is currently putting the finishing touches on his fourth novel, which he promises will have nothing to do with the eighteenth century, stock trading, or men in wigs. As for that dissertation, Weaver is still listed in his official bio as a doctoral candidate. With three successful novels and a fourth in the works, however, Liss is not rushing to finish his degree. When asked whether he feels a need to complete the degree, he says, "Not at all. I'd quit again if I could."

Good To Know

A few outtakes from our interview with Liss:

"I once spent a spent a summer selling encyclopedias door to door."

"I am dedicated to the cause of animal rights."

"On my first day of college, I vomited on the dining hall steps in front of a timid young lady and her horrified parents."

"I don't have any especially interesting unusual hobbies. When not working or parenting, I tend to be reading, exercising (I'm told that fitness has replaced alcoholism for contemporary writers), and general socializing. I have a long-standing interest in, and appreciation of, wine."

"Also, I'm thinking of starting my own cult -- a small group of people who will give me all of their material possessions and worship me as the most powerful being in the universe. If you're interested in joining, shoot me an email."

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    1. Hometown:
      San Antonio, Texas
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 16, 1966
    2. Place of Birth:
      Englewood, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      B.S., M.A., M.Phil.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Ethan Saunders

i


It was rainy and cold outside, miserable weather, and though I had not left my boardinghouse determined to die, things were now different. After consuming far more than my share of that frontier delicacy Monongahela rye, a calm resolution had come over me. A very angry man named Nathan Dorland was looking for me, asking for me at every inn, chophouse, and tavern in the city and making no secret of his intention to murder me. Perhaps he would find me tonight and, if not, tomorrow or the next day. Not any later than that. It was inevitable only because I was determined not to fight against the tide of popular

opinion—which is to say, that I ought to be killed. It was my decision to submit, and I have long believed in keeping true to a plan once it has been cast in earnest.

It is a principle I cultivated during the war—indeed, one I learned from observing General Washington himself. This was in the early days of the Revolution, when His Excellency still believed he might defeat the British in pitched battle, Continental style, with our ill- disciplined and badly equipped militias set against the might of British regulars. It was the decisive military victory he wanted; indeed, in those early days it was the only sort he believed worth having. He would invite the officers to dine with him, and we would drink claret and eat roast chicken and sip our turtle soup and he would tell us how we were going to drive the Redcoats back at Brooklyn, and the unfortunate affair would be over before winter.

That was during the war. Now it was early in 1792, and I sat at the bar of the Lion and Bell in that part of Philadelphia euphemistically called Helltown. In that unsavory scene, I drank my whiskey with hot water while I waited for death to find me. I kept my back to the door, having no wish to see my enemy coming and because the Lion and Bell was as unlovely a place as Helltown offered—and those were mighty unlovely. The air was thick with smoke from pipes plugged full of cheap tobacco, and the floor, naught but dirt, had turned to mud with the icy rain outside and the spills and spitting and tobacco juice. The benches lay lopsided in the newly made hummocks and ruts of the ground, and the drunken patrons would, from time to time, topple over and tumble like felled timber into the muck. Perhaps a drinker might take the trouble to roll a friend over to keep him from drowning, though there could be no certainty. Helltown friends were none the best.

It was a curious mix there: the poor, the whores, the desperate, the servants run off for the night or the month or forever. And alongside them, throwing dice upon uneven surfaces or hunched over a hand of cards spread across ripped velvet, were the gentlemen in their fine woolen suits and white stockings and shimmering silver buckles. They’d come to gawk and to rub elbows with the colorful filth, and most of all they’d come to game. It was the spirit of the city, now that Alexander Hamilton, that astonishing buffoon, had launched his great project, the Bank of the United States. As Secretary of the Treasury, he had single-handedly transformed the country from a republican beacon for mankind into a paradise for speculators. Ten years earlier, with a single stroke, he had transformed me from patriot to outcast.

I removed from my pocket a watch, currently my only possession of value if one did not account my slave, Leonidas. I had, despite the decisions that had prevailed among the wise drafters of our Constitution, never quite learned to think of Leonidas as property. He was a man, and as good a man as any I’d known. It sat ill with me to keep a slave, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, whose small population of owned blacks numbered in the dozens, and one could find fifty free blacks for each bondsman. I could never sell Leonidas, no matter how dire my need, because I did not think it right to buy and sell men. On the other hand, though it was no fault of his, Leonidas would fetch at auction as much as fifty or sixty pounds’ worth of dollars, and it had always seemed to me madness to emancipate such a sum.

So the timepiece, in practical terms, was currently my only thing of worth—a sad fact, given that I had removed it from its rightful owner only a few hours earlier. Its glittering face told me it was now half past eight. Dorland would have eaten his fashionably late dinner well over two hours ago, giving him ample time to collect his friends and come in search of me. It could be any minute now.

I slid back into my pocket the timepiece I’d taken on Chestnut Street. The owner had been a fat jackanapes, a self-important merchant. He’d been talking to another fat jackanapes and had paid no mind while I brushed past him. I’d not planned to take the watch, nor did I make a habit of such things as common theft, but it had been so tempting, and there seemed to be no reason not to claim it and then disappear in that crowded street, clacking with the walking sticks of bankers and brokers and merchants. I saw the watch, saw it might be taken, and saw how I might take it.

Even then, if that had been all, I would have let it go, but then I heard the man speak. It was his words, not my need, that drove me to take what was not mine. This man, this lump of a man, who resembled a great and corpulent bottom-heavy bear, forced into a crushed-velvet blue suit, had been invited to a gathering the next week at the house of Mr. William Bingham. That was all I knew of him, that he, a mere maker of money, nothing more than a glorified storekeeper, had been invited to partake of the finest society in Philadelphia—indeed, in the nation. I, who had sacrificed all for the Revolution, a man who had risked life in return for less than nothing, was little more than a beggar. So I took his watch, and I defy anyone to blame me.

Now that it was mine, I examined the painting in the inside cover, a young lady of not twenty, plump of face, like the watch’s owner, with a bundle of yellow hair and eyes far apart and open wide, as though she’d been in perpetual astonishment while she sat for the portrait. A daughter? A wife? It hardly mattered. I had taken from a stranger a thing he loved, and now Nathan Dorland was coming to avenge such wrongs, too innumerable to catalogue.

“Handsome timepiece,” said Owen, standing behind the bar. He was a tall man with a head long and narrow, shaped like one of the pewter mugs into which he poured his ales, with wheat-colored hair that curled up like foam. “Timepiece like that might go a way toward paying a debt.” He held out one of his meaty hands, covered with oil and filth and blood from a fresh cut on his palm to which he paid no mind.

I shrugged. “With all my heart, but you must know the watch is newly thieved.”

He withdrew the hand and wiped it on his filthy apron. “Don’t need the trouble, but I ought to send you to fence it now, before you lose it at game.”

“Should I turn the watch to ready, I would not use it for something so ephemeral as a tavern debt.” I pushed my empty mug toward him. “Another, if you please, my good man.”

Owen stared for a moment, his tankard of a face collapsed in purse- lipped indecision. He was a young man, not two-and-twenty, and he had a profound, nearly religious reverence for those who had fought in the war. Living, as he did, in such a place as Helltown, and moving through indifferent social circles, he had never heard how my military career had met its conclusion, and I saw no advantage in sharing information that would lead to his disillusionment.

Instead, I favored other details. Owen’s father died in the fighting at Brooklyn Heights, and more than once had I treated Owen to the tale of how I had met his father that bloody day, when I was captain of a New York regiment, before my true skills were discovered and I was no longer to be found upon the battlefield. That day I led men, and when I told Owen the tale, my voice grew thick with cannon fire and death screams and the wet crunch of British bayonet against patriot flesh. I would recount how I had given Owen’s honored father powder during the chaos of the ignominious retreat. With blood and limbs and musket balls flying about us, the air acrid with smoke, the British slaughtering us with imperial fury, I had taken the time to aid a militia volunteer, for we had shared a moment of revolutionary comradeship that defied our differences in rank and station. The tale kept the drinks flowing.

Owen took my mug, poured in some whiskey from an unstoppered bottle and hot water from a pitcher near the stove. He set it down before me with a considerable thud.

“Some would say you’ve had your fill,” he told me.

“Some would,” I agreed.

“Some would say you’re abusing my generosity.”

“Impertinent bastards.”

Owen turned away and I opened the watch once more, setting it upon the counter, where I might stare at the tick of its hands and the girl who had meant so much to the merchant. To my right sat an animated skeleton of a man in a ragged coat that covered remarkably unclean linen. His face was unshaved, and his nasty eyes, lodged between the thinning brown hair of his crown and the thickening brown hair of his cheeks, stole glances at my prize. I’d seen him come in an hour earlier and slide a few coins across the bar to Owen, who had, in exchange, handed a small parchment sack to the ragged man. Owen did a brisk trade in that greenish powder called Spanish fly, though this man, his magic dust in hand, seemed content to sit at the bar and cast glances at me and my timepiece.

“I say, fellow, you are looking upon my watch.”

He shook his head. “Wasn’t.”

“Why, I saw it, fellow. I saw you setting larcenous eyes upon my watch. This very one.”

“Ain’t,” he said, looking closely at his drink.

“Don’t you speechify at me, fellow. You were coveting my timepiece.” I held it up by the chain. “Take it if you have the courage. Take it from my hands while I observe you rather than skulking in the dark like a sneak thief.”

He continued to gaze inside his pewter mug as though it were a seeing crystal and he a wizard. Owen whispered a word or two to him, and the skinny gawker moved farther down the bar, leaving me alone. It was what I liked best.

The hands of the watch moved. It was strange how a man could find himself in so morose a state. Only a few days before I had considered Dorland’s pursuit of revenge as a vague amusement. Now I was content to let him kill me. What had changed? I could point to so many things, so many disappointments and failures and struggles, but I knew better. It was that morning, coming from my rooms and seeing the back of a woman half a block ahead of me, walking quickly away. From a great distance, through the tangle of pedestrians, I had seen a honey-brown coat and, above it, a mass of golden-blond hair upon which sat a prim if impractical wide-brimmed hat. For a moment, from nothing more than the color of her hair, from the way her coat hung upon her frame, from the way her feet struck the stones, I had convinced myself that it was Cynthia. I believed, if only for an instant, that after so many years and married though she was to a man of great consequence, Cynthia Pearson knew I now lived in Philadelphia, knew where I lived, and had come to see me. Perhaps, at the last moment, recognizing the impropriety, she lost her courage and scurried away, but she had wanted to see me. She still longed for me the way I longed for her.

It lasted but an instant, this utter, unassailable conviction that it was Cynthia, and then disappointment and humiliation struck me just as hard and just as quickly. Of course it had not been she. Of course Cynthia Pearson had not come to knock upon my door. The idea was absurd, and that I should, after ten years, be so quick to believe otherwise testified to how empty was my sad existence.

When Owen returned, I closed the watch and put it away, and then I drained my drink. “Be so good as to pour another.”

Owen hovered before me, shaking his head, his mug handle of a nose blurring in the light of the oil lamps. “You can hardly keep yourself sitting. Go home, Captain Saunders.”

“Another. I am to die tonight, and I wish to do it good and drunk.”

“I daresay he is already quite drunk,” said a voice from behind me, “but give him another if he likes.”

It was Nathan Dorland. I needn’t look, for I knew the voice.

Owen’s eyes narrowed with contempt, for Dorland was not an imposing figure. Not tall, not broad, not confident or commanding “Unless you’re a friend of Captain Saunders, and from the look of you, I’m guessing you ain’t, I’d say this is none of your concern.”

“It’s my concern, because when this wretch is done with his drink, I mean to take him outside and introduce him to a concept called justice, with which he has been all too unfamiliar.”

“And yet,” I said, “I am familiar with injustice. Such irony.”

“I don’t know your complaint,” said Owen, “and I know the captain well enough to trust you’ve got your cause. Even so, you’ll not harm him. Not here. If you’ve a grievance with him, you must challenge him to a duel, like a gentleman.”

“I have done so, and he has refused my challenge,” Dorland said, sounding very much like a whining child.

“Duels are fought so early in the morning,” I said to Owen. “It’s barbarous.”

Owen looked over at Dorland. “You’ve heard it. He has no interest in fighting you, and you must respect that. This man is a hero of the Revolution, and I owe him a debt for my father’s sake. I’ll defend his right to fight or not fight whom he wishes.”
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Reading Group Guide

1. 1. Andrew Maycott believes “The American novel, if it is to be honest, must be about money, not property. Money alone– base, unremarkable, corrupting money” (page 30). Do you agree? By his definition, is The Whiskey Rebels an American novel? Why or why not?

 2. Captain Ethan Saunders implores us, “Look beneath and you may find several things that surprise you” (page 63). If we take Ethan’s advice and look beneath or past his scheming, his impropriety, and his status as a “ruin of a man,” what do we find? How and why are honor and reputation intertwined? 

3. Through her reading, Joan Maycott discovers: “When my empathy for a character led me to weep or laugh or fear for her safety, I spent hours determining by what means the novelist had effected this magic. When I cared nothing for suffering and loss, I dissected the want of craft that engendered such apathy” (page 23). How does David Liss engender empathy or apathy for his characters? Did you sometimes feel both empathy and apathy for the same character? 

4. En route to the Pennsylvania frontier, Phineas tells Joan “The West changes you. . . . I’m what the West made me, and you’ll be what it makes you” (page 84). Is this true? If so, how does the frontier change Joan? Phineas? What does this say about free will and choice in relation to place and circumstance? 

5. Examine the characterizations and the roles of women in The Whiskey Rebels. What similarities do you find? What differences? Are they victims? 

6. Mr. Brackenridge defines himself as a patriot– one who “does not make the principles of his country conform to his own ideas” (page 188). How else is patriotism defined or demonstrated in this book? How would you define patriotism? Who else in The Whiskey Rebels is then a patriot? 

7. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, William Duer, and Joan Maycott have varied theories on the American economy, the Bank of the United States, and the excise tax. For instance, the Bank is either a great boon for the nation, a terrible disaster for the nation, or an opportunity to be exploited. Talk about their differing perspectives in relation to the events of The Whiskey Rebels. Who do you think is right? Do these debates continue today? 

8. Discuss the principle of justice and its relation to revenge, integrity, inequality, and the law in The Whiskey Rebels. How does Joan Maycott justify her revenge against Alexander Hamilton? 

9. Why does Captain Saunders not allow his slave, Leonidas, to purchase his freedom and later “simply neglect[s] to inform” him that he is a free man? What does liberty mean to Captain Saunders? Joan Maycott? Leonidas? Cynthia Pearson? The newly formed United States? 

10. Lavien believes “It is only in the eyes of one another that inequality lies” (page 94). Who else, besides Lavien, serves as a moral arbiter in the novel? What examples of presumed superiority and/or civility can be found in The Whiskey Rebels? What examples can you find of an impossible tension between greed and civility, wealth and humanity? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 106 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(56)

4 Star

(31)

3 Star

(14)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 106 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 16, 2010

    5 stars? Really?

    Look, I love Liss, and I think I gave his Devil's Co. high marks, but this book falls flat in the last 100 pages. I mean there is just waaaaaaaaaaay tooooooooo much talk about Joan Maycott saying over and over again, ''just wait, we need more time.'' I mean there is just a whole section of pages that probably didnt need to be written, thus, I skipped them.
    Nobody writes h.f. quite like Liss, and the concept of the book is good, but I dont know. The first 350 pages I loved it. The last 150, not so much

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    a fascinating story about the economics of post-Revolutionary War America

    This was an excellent historical novel set in the late 1780s and 1790s. It was very well researched and detailed. This is a wonderful book for anyone who would love to increase their knowledge of this period while enjoying a great fictional story as well. This book motivated me to actually go and read more history of the beginnings of our country. It really brings history alive and makes it fun to learn.I highly recommend this book especially for those who want some intellectual stimulation along with a great novel!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    4.5 stars! and I loved the cover.

    I'm not quite sure what I was expecting but this was an entertaining albeit not an easy read--it is definitely not a book in which you can skim or you will certainly be confused. Liss weaves an intricate plot of political and financial intrigue during the post-Revolutionary Whiskey Rebellion. There are two story lines: Ethan Saunders--a very flawed "anti-hero" type, wrongly accused of being a traitor but finds himself on a path that may help restore his reputation while trying to save the country and woman he loves; and Joan Maycott--a woman whose life was turned upside down by financial speculators and who seeks revenge. Although I preferred Maycott's story line I couldn't help but enjoy reading about the lecherous, egotistical, damaged, yet clever character of Saunders more. Liss did a phenomenal job of creating such an interesting protagonist. I also appreciated Liss' depiction of Leonidas, Suanders' slave, who is unlike the other slaves I've encountered in novels; he is intelligent, cultured, and a gentleman.

    In these recent economic challenging times, a reader of this novel may certainly find him/herself wrought with some emotion in response to the story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Solid Historical Novel Based on the Creation of America's Banking System

    When I decided to read this book I thought the Whiskey Rebellion would be central to the plot. Although the excise on whiskey was a prominent aspect of the book the actual rebellion is only briefly mentioned in the end. Liss builds the plot around a theoretical attempt by those affected by the excise tax as the propogators of the panic that ensued after the launch of the Million Bank. I found this book to be in the same vein as The Dante Club: historical figures thrust into the midst of events shrouded in mystery.

    It was a fun read. There is a lot of good information about Hamilton's banking system, the panic of 1792, and the importance of whiskey in the country's (or at least the West's) early economy

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    History at its best

    All of David Liss's books are well written, fun to read, and informative. I would recommend his books to those that like a good story, but also like to read about history as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    You'll Enjoy This Financial Panic!

    Posted September 15, 2008, 4:03 PM EST: David Liss has been on my 'to read' list for quite some time. After reading The Whiskey Rebels, he's sky rocketed to the top of that list. Historical fiction and adventure fans will enjoy this book. This is not a novel about The Whiskey Rebellion, but rather a novel that leads up to it. Liss merges the post Revolutionary frontier with the financial panic of 1792 surrounding the Bank of the United States. Two main characters, Ethan Saunders, George Washington's disgraced ex-spy living in Philadelphia and Joan Maycott, an early settler of western Pennsylvania, are both narrating their stories for the first half of the book. Both characters are victims of lies and treachery in very different societies and Liss is brilliant in bringing the 'frontier' and the city of Philadelphia of the 1790's alive. Liss' has wonderfully built period atmosphere, compelling characters,and masterfully weaves the two stories together to build to a surprising ending. The Whiskey Rebels has hit every point I look for in historical fiction -- a story based on history I know little about (or have forgotten) that I can get lost in!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2008

    one of the best books i've ever read

    I finished my Advanced Reading Copy of The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss. Ask my wife. I can¿t stop talking about this book. I am a history buff and have started to really take an interest in the American Revolution and the following twenty years in which our nation went through tremendous growing pains to find our identity as a nation. I recently read Ron Chernow¿s Alexander Hamilton and both loved it and learned a tremendous amount. So when I received the ARC for this book I was really excited to get right to it. I have heard that Mr. Liss came up with the idea for this book while reading Alexander Hamilton. I have read three of the other four books by Mr. Liss and really enjoyed them. These books all have a great mystery to be solved and have history lesson worked in. His books are well written with a flair for historical accuracy. The historical details work because they presented as a history lesson, but to create the environment that the characters move through. The Whiskey Rebels is no exception. The book follows two main characters, Captain Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott. Each character narrates their alternating chapters in the first person with Capt. Saunders narrating the first chapter and Mrs. Maycott narrating the second chapter. Capt. Saunders narrates in the present while Mrs. Maycott tells her story starting years earlier which catches up to Capt. Saunders and the ¿present¿ by the end of the book. I loved the dual narrators. It accomplished two things. First, Mrs. Maycott¿s chapters work as a history lesson of sorts, explain and putting a human face of the origins of the future Whiskey Rebellion. It¿s not just a history lesson though. He story is very intriguing and would certainly keep you reading if it were it¿s own stand along novel. Second, Capt. Saunders¿ is a more action oriented role. Having his voice silenced for a chapter serves to build the tension as you wait to find out what will happen to him next. One other note. There are layers to this book. Mr. Liss explains them a bit in the Author¿s Note at the end of the book, but there are quite a few secondary characters who were indeed real people. You could easily read through the book and if you haven¿t read up on this period of history you would have no idea there aren¿t just characters made up for the book. I love the fact that he was able to use these people in this fictitious story, and does so in a way that he isn¿t distorting them. He weaves them realistically into his plot to the point that if you don¿t know the history well, you don¿t know where fact end and fiction begins.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Very Good read!

    Great storytelling. You really get a sense of what life was like in the 1790's. Great characters. I really enjoyed it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2012

    loved

    Thriller. Couldnt sleep bc i couldnt put it down!

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  • Posted January 21, 2012

    it was just ok

    ok not really good

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  • Posted January 7, 2012

    DAVID LISS---ONE OF THE BEST!

    This is the second book by David Liss I have read (The Twelfth Enchantment the first), and I plan to put the other titles by this author on my wish list. He has a very unique style of twisting a story in so many directions, with so many possibilities, then unraveling the whole thing with direct intention and purpose. He pulls the reader into the story, and in the imagination you see what he has created in words. The details he chooses to include in his tale is never over or under done. The historical facts, whether true or contrived for the plot, are quite clear and flow with the telling of the story. He knows the historical background to his stories and incorporates the knowledge quite well. Read this book and you will be pleased to declare: "David Liss---One of the Best!"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2011

    Great book

    Good historical fiction.

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  • Posted July 5, 2011

    Like it!

    I like this book but it dragged in the end.

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  • Posted March 4, 2011

    Awesome, suspenseful and much more!

    I was not sure about this book, but the synopsis pulled me in. David Liss has done his research and it shows! It was suspenseful, romantic, adventurous... I cannot say enough about it. I am happy to say this was the first novel I have read in 10 years! I am totally hooked now!

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  • Posted January 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly reccommended

    If you enjoy post revolutionary war history this is a must read! While the story is fictional it does carry a lot of correct history and charactors in it. I found it to be a good read, but it took me a while to figure out the two story lines didn't coinside until about half way through the book.

    This was my first book by David Liss, but now I will look for another!

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  • Posted May 16, 2010

    A great read for everyone!

    Historical fiction at its best! I was instantly captivated by Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott and their individual quests for justice to uphold the principles on which this country was founded. Very thought provoking with raw detail about living standards, class division, personal integrity and the evolution of a new nation. Ethan is flawed yet you root for him through the entire story. Joan is the epitome of strength and courage. This was the best novel I have read in a long time! It would be great for a book club because it includes topics for discussion. Thank you David Liss for marrying such an imaginative story with real life figures! I'm off to buy more Liss novels!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2010

    A wonderful read!

    I did not want this book to end. It transports one back to the 1700s and its fictional characters interact with those figures that shaped our history. I learned a lot while enjoying each page. Especially enjoyed the witty sarcastic sense of humor of Ethan Saunders' character.

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  • Posted December 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Amazing Characters

    This is one of the best books I have read in a while. I honestly bought it because I thougt it would be a quick and entertaining beach read, but it proved to be much more thought provoking and informative that I anticipated. The characters in this book are so well written that you just don't want the book to end. It leaves you wanting to sit down with them for a continued conversation.

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  • Posted October 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Awesome book

    I really enjoyed this book. Depicted late 1700s very well...MUST READ if historic Fiction interests you..especially American history

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  • Posted August 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Mr. Liss Emigrates

    One should not read David Liss while babysitting small children, listening to an I-Pod or utilizing a Stairmaster. It's too easy to miss the really good stuff--the unraveling of a plot thread or the finer ironies of one of his many character descriptions. "The Whiskey Rebels" demands special attention because it features not one but two protoganists who operate simultaenously and become antagonists as the plot winds down. Keeping track of the action is worth it, however, becausee the stake is nothing less than the fiscal survival of the young American republic.

    Liss' first story set in the US provides a choice history lesson. Historical figures like Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the rapacious William Duer--an eighteemth century role model for Bernie Maddock--play major roles. Even more fun are the muddy, smelly, boozey settings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York City, and the rowdy whiskey boys from the frontier along the Ohio River.

    In the Q&A accompanying the paperback version. Liss mentioned how much longer this novel took than the others, and that if he returned to the New World, it wouldn't be anytime soon. We hope he reconsiders, but in the meantime, you can find me happily curled up with a copy of "The Devil's Companion" which, I understand, actually has a scene or two set in Florida.

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