Monday, September 19, 2016

Ann Howard Creel's The Whiskey Sea, about a Prohibition-era woman facing risky choices

Having grown up along the central New Jersey coast, Frieda Hope has a personal relationship with the ocean. When she goes out clamming with her foster father, the wind rushing through her hair, she feels alive and free. For Frieda, the sea has healing qualities. If she feels upset, the fury of its waves tempers her own, and in calmer times, “it was as if some almighty power had smoothed her rough edges while leveling the surface of the sea with big, broad hands.”

The sea is an energetic force, and Creel makes readers feel its vitality. Sparkling in the summer sun, quiet and crafty on moonless nights, it’s a character in itself, but an indifferent one: it can’t save Frieda from her choices.

Set during Prohibition, The Whiskey Sea presents the story of a tenacious young woman who finds herself taking risks. One is deliberate, while another catches her off guard.

Daughters of the town prostitute, who died when they were young, Frieda and her younger sister, Bea, were taken in by Silver, a crusty sailor, and raised as his own. When Silver breaks Frieda’s heart by selling his boat – he’s getting too old to be out on the waters – she goes against the advice of everyone, including her faithful admirer Sam Hicks, and takes a job as engineer for a rum-running operation. The sea “churned with opportunity,” and Frieda sees a way to earn cash to put Bea through teachers’ college, take care of Silver, and ensure she never has to resort to selling her body, like her mother did.

Transporting illegal booze may be lucrative, but it’s becoming more dangerous. In addition, when a classically handsome Ivy League grad on a summer break pursues a relationship with Frieda, she’s left feeling oddly vulnerable. She’d never thought of herself before in womanly terms.

The novel delves into the technical aspects of rum-running – who knew there was such sophisticated precision behind it? – and makes clear the hazards that bootleggers face not just from the police and Coast Guard but from murderous pirates. The supposed closeness between Frieda and Bea doesn’t come through as strongly as it could have, and Frieda’s love life turns out a bit predictably, but the novel wraps up in a satisfying way. Scenes of working-class 1920s New Jersey contrast vividly with the lifestyles of upper-crust New York – a city that's unfamiliar to Frieda, despite its geographic proximity.

With fluid language that lays bare its characters’ tumultuous emotions, The Whiskey Sea realistically brings to life a young woman grappling with a new side to her nature.

Ann Howard Creel's The Whiskey Sea was published by Lake Union on August 23rd ($14.95 pb/$3.99 ebook, 300pp).  Thanks to the publisher for access via NetGalley.  This review forms part of the novel's blog tour via TLC Book Tours.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher, I have one copy of the novel to give away to a North American reader. Interested? Please fill out the form below by Monday 9/26 for a chance to win. Void where prohibited; one entry per household, please.  I'll post the winner's name after the giveaway concludes.


  1. Replies
    1. It was - it's not the usual historical fiction subject. I went to undergrad in NJ and have friends from the area, and it was great about to read about NJ a century ago. Hope you'll enjoy it if you get the chance to read it.

  2. Ooh, this sounds very unique! Sounds very intriguing, as I've not read many historical fiction novels with story quite like this one, I will be sure to read this soon. :)

    1. It is different - not the usual coming of age novel.

  3. The technical aspects of rum-running would, I think, be fascinating to me. Details like that can really get me invested in a story.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!