Monday, September 26, 2016

“The Whiskey Rebels” by David Liss

It’s 1792. Ethan Saunders lives in Philadelphia and is a veteran of the American Revolution, living his life in increasing penury and drunkenness as a result of being falsely accused of treason during the war. He had been a spy, and very effective one, perhaps too effective. He had been falsely accused of treason, and not only was forced to resign but also lost the great love of his life.

Saunders is sinking deeper into dissolution when he learns that his old love has turned to him in desperation for help. Her husband is missing, she’s been threatened, and she doesn’t know what is happening. It’s something to do with the new National Bank created by Alexander Hamilton.

Joan Maycott lives in upstate New York. Her story begins in 1781. She falls in love with a younger son of a neighboring family, Andrew Maycott, a man wounded during the Revolution. They try their hand at running a carpentry business in New York City, but the work is a constant struggle. The Maycotts are offered a way out – in return for the IOU the federal government owes Maycott as a veteran (the Revolution veterans were still waiting to paid several years after the war), a business agent offers land in western Pennsylvania.

The exchange turns out to be something less than fair – forested land instead of cropland and a rapacious villain holding title to the land until it’s fully paid off. And the villain wants more than financial payment – he offers favorable terms in return for bedding Joan Maycott. Her husband refuses, and with help from other settlers, they begin to carve out a life. And it turns out that Andrew Maycott figures out how to make incredibly good whiskey. All is going well, until Alexander Hamilton convinces Congress to pay for the national bank with a tax on whiskey.

The stories of Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott eventually converge. Saunders gradually discovers a plot to take over the bank, a plot being used to disguise the real plot – destroy the bank and wreck the economy of the young nation.

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, originally published in 2008, is the story of Saunders, Maycott, and the early days of the National Bank, when there actually was a plot to take over the bank. It is a story peopled with fictional and real characters, and fictional and real events, vividly combined into an exciting and riveting tale. (The actual Whiskey Rebellion occurred two years after the events told in the story, and the country witnessed the spectacle of the federal government sending troops to subdue its own citizens.)
David Liss

Saunders and Maycott will find themselves allies – or perhaps opponents – as the conspirators and government agents race to outwit each other. At that point, the story becomes an edge-of-the-0seat account.

What Liss does, and does effectively, is to use historical research to color, shade, and shape his story. The reader gains a sense not only of the history unfolding but also what it was like to live in Philadelphia and New York as well as on what was then the frontier (Pittsburgh).

Liss is the author of several bestselling historical novels, including A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), The Coffee Trader (2003), A Spectacle of Corruption (2004), The Ethical Assassin (2006), The Devil’s Company (2009), The Twelfth Enchantment (2012), and The Day of Atonement (2014). He’s also published several children’s books. He lives in San Antonio.

The Whiskey Rebels is an outstanding historical novel.

Illustration: The National Bank in Philadelphia in the 1790s.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The five Ws

What constitutes sacrifice –
the difference between giving
one thing and giving another?
How is sacrifice measured
with metric scales
or conscience?

Who makes a sacrifice
if not an anointed priest?

When is a sacrifice made,
by calendar date or moment?

Why is sacrifice made,
for recognition or gain
or expiation or desire
or need?

Where is sacrifice accomplished;
is the place sacred or profane;
does it add up to solemnity
or meaning?

None of these.
Not one.

Once was sufficient.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Good Reads

Years ago, 1989 in fact, I gave a speech at Amana Colonies, Iowa. I remember flying into Cedar Rapids and then driving to Amana. I knew two things about the town that is actually a collection of villages: that’s where the Amana freezer came from, and it had been founded as a type of Utopian community. Ellie Gordon-Moershel at Atlas Obscura has a story about her mother, who grew up there.

Tomorrow, a band of warriors will begin to march from York in northern England to Hastings in Southern England, to reenact the battle against the Normans in 1066. The actual reenactment will happen the weekend of Oct. 15-16. (One thing I’ve learned about the British – they love anniversaries.)

The British Library has launched a new web site on the Greek manuscripts in its collection, where you can find illuminated gospels, articles on medicine, Byzantine manuscripts, and Greek Old Testament documents.

Erik Raymond at The Gospel Coalition encounters a seeker who walked away from a seeker church, for the very reasons the seeker church existed. Rachelle Peterson at First Things reflects on the value of old books. Rebecca Solnit has 10 tips on how to be a writer. They’re not as well-known as those of World War I, but World War II had its war poets, and Keith Douglas was one of them. And the video today is the last two minutes of the last Howdy Doody Show, which an entire generation of children (including me) grew up with.

Art and Photography

Scott Joplin House, Revisited – Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina.

Obed Edom, Hand-Colored Linocut – Jack Baumgartner at The School of the Transfer of Energy.


Art and Photography

A-blur and Studies of a Lily – Tim Good at Photography and Poetry.

The Deal of the Arts – Ed Koehler.


Between synapses – Barbara Mackenzie at Signed…BKM.

A Late Style of Fire: Poet Larry Levis – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Keith Douglas: A War Poet Remembered but Not Simplified – Stephen Isenberg at Los Angeles Review of Books.

My father cannot stop – Lavinia Greenlaw via The Guardian.


They Unchurched the Church – Erik Raymond at The Gospel Coalition.

My Mom Grew Up in a Utopian Colony in Iowa – Ellie Gordon-Moershel at Atlas Obscura.

Talking to God: Clocks – Jake Lee at Very Much Later.

Life and Culture

On Reading Old Books – Rachelle Peterson at First Things Magazine.

British Stuff

March into 1066 – English Heritage.

Greek Manuscripts – British Library.

The Last Two Minutes of the Last Howdy Doody Show

Painting: Woman Reading a Book in a Garden by Harold Harvey (about 1900).