Usually when I read historical fiction, I go way back. Like to Anne Boleyn and Saxon’s conquering England way back. This is the first historical fiction I’ve read where it’s a bit more modern ear, which still isn’t all that modern. “The Whiskey Sea” is about a woman rum-runner during Prohibition era. Frieda is a feisty, strong willed woman who dislikes that she gets paid less for fixing boat engines just as well (and better) than other mechanics just because she is a woman. In order to help pay for her sister’s education and her adopted father’s medical bills, she turns to a highly lucrative but dangerous profession.
Creel does a great job with scene setting. I felt immersed in the roaring 20’s but, more importantly, I was immersed in Frieda’s humble beginnings and what it was like for these poor clammers living around the docks in New York. You see how they struggle to get by, how they make do with their simple lifestyle, and the love they have for the sea. Creel captures the language, the mannerisms, and boat and engine repair in the 20’s extremely well.
The parts where I was most interested, where my heart was racing and I was fully immersed in the story, was when Frieda was rum-running. However, I never felt like Creel spent much time there. Outside of describing one or two runs, the majority turned into paragraph long explanations to say that the run went smoothly, negating the tension of something that was really dangerous during that time period. We see Frieda struggle with the morality of it and the guilt of breaking the law, but you get more of that than you do her experience on running rum. I would have liked more tense excursions where Frieda really has to ask herself if this is worth it even when as she supports her sister and father and less time with her old money boyfriend.
The book does claim that while she is rum-running, someone else runs off with her heart. I just never liked the old-money guy she finds who does rum-running just for sport. Their relationship was purely physical, which is fine, but given the promise the book makes, I expected there to be more of a struggle between their two worlds. There never really was one, I got the sense early on of exactly where the relationship was going when what I really wanted was a reconciliation of those two worlds into a meaningful relationship. It’s a realistic portrayal, certainly, just not the one I was hoping for.
Between the lack of intense moments and a lack luster romance, when the book ended I didn’t feel like much was accomplished or learned by Frieda or the other characters in the book (who I won’t name to help cut down on spoilers). That it was the circumstances that had Frieda changing her ways, not because she learned anything. Frieda lost a lot of the feistiness I loved in her by the end of the book too, which can be construed as maturity on the characters part, but I liked her fiery spark and missed it when it was gone.
All in all, from a historical standpoint, this is a great book. The author did a lot of research and it shows in the richness of the scenes she creates. Frieda was an awesome woman for about three quarters of the book as well, she was fun to get to know and watch as she took care of her family. But I wanted more rum-running. I wanted something different with the romance. I don’t feel as if the book completely made good on its promises which lead to a bit of a bland ending. Because of this, I’m giving it 3.5 stars but I’d be curious to read more by this author.
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