Whiskey When We're Dry by John Larison
Finished on February 11, 2019
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
In the spring of 1885, seventeen-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family's homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess's quest lands her in the employ of the territory's violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah--dead or alive.
Wrestling with her brother's outlaw identity, and haunted by questions about her own, Jess must outmaneuver those who underestimate her, ultimately rising to become a hero in her own right.
Told in Jess's wholly original and unforgettable voice, Whiskey When We're Dry is a stunning achievement, an epic as expansive as America itself--and a reckoning with the myths that are entwined with our history.
Whiskey When We're Dry was selected by my book club for this month's read. It is also the Newport Reads choice for 2019 and the author will be speaking at the Newport Performing Arts Center on April 11th. Westerns have never been my book of choice and none of my blogging friends have mentioned this book or author, so had my group not chosen to read this, I probably would have passed it over without a second glance. That would have been a terrible shame, as this will more than likely be one of my favorite reads of the 2019!
John Larison is a wonderful storyteller and his engaging dialogue and great sense of place pulled me in from the get-go. The pages flew and I kept looking ahead to see how many pages remained, not because I was eager to finish, but because I didn't want to reach the end. The characters are full of life, particularly Jess, Greenie and Annette and I was sad to see them go when I turned that final page. As one would expect from the genre and time period, there is quite a bit of violence, and yet I wasn't bothered by the gritty details of the gun fights.
My only quibble is that the book is divided into five parts, but lacks chapters, which I dislike greatly. I rely on chapter breaks to provide a stopping point, especially with a lengthy book such as this, which comes in just under 400 pages. But as I said, it's a minor quibble and was easily overlooked given Larison's beautiful prose.
Our kin homesteaded where desert met lake. The hills in the near distance wore blankets of pine. Patterns of aspen marked the water. Beyond them the mountains stood blue on clear days and devoured the sun long before it left this world. From the home Pa built us we couldn’t see the lake but we could see the willows along its edge and we could hear the wingbeats of doves.Whiskey When We're Dry is a beautifully written tale, which will appeal to a broad range of readers, but most especially to fans of All the Pretty Horses (McCarthy), These Is My Words (Turner) and News of the World (Jiles). Maybe now it's finally time for me to give Lonesome Dove a chance.
A thunderclap of originality, here is a fresh voice and fresh take on one of the oldest stories we tell about ourselves as Americans and Westerners. It's riveting in all the right ways -- a damn good read that stayed with me long after closing the covers. – Timothy Egan, New York Time bestselling author of THE WORST HARD TIME
An orphan girl straight out of a Gillian Welch song, betrayed in every way imaginable by the brutality that 'won the West,' is left no way to hew a family or honor but to become a virtuoso cross-dressed killer of Manifest Destiny's men. As Jessilyn Harney takes on the great lies and liars with lyrical violence, her voice takes flight, becoming a sustained, forlornly beautiful, mind-bending aria for our age. – David James Duncan, author of The River Why