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February 17, 2019

Whiskey When We're Dry



Whiskey When We're Dry by John Larison
Fiction
2018 Viking
Finished on February 11, 2019
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

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

12 comments:

  1. I've never heard of this book and can't think of a western I've read but you've convinced me to add this to my wish list.

    It's funny that you mentioned chapters because my current read doesn't have them either and it's a little frustrating.

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    1. Kathy, the lack of chapters is really frustrating, isn't it?! Hope you give this book a try. I think you'd really enjoy it. Great characters and an unpredictable plot. I would love to see this on the big screen someday.

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  2. Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed this book and how fun to get to see the author in Newport. I guess I'm assuming you might go to the author event in April. I looked at his website and also saw that he has an event in June at Salishan...just in case. I took a look and the Austin library has copies of it. I just finished reading NEWS OF THE WORLD and will discuss it on Tuesday afternoon with a book group. I think I'll recommend this one to the group and use your review - if you don't mind...

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    1. Kay, I looked at his event schedule, too, and saw that he'll also be at Salishan. You may have to come out for that! :) OF course you can share my review with your book group on Tuesday. I'm anxious to hear how my group liked it and will posts an update after our meeting.

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  3. I'm not a fan of westerns either but this does sound very original. That's one of the reasons why I love book groups too - to read books I may not have chosen myself.

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    1. Iliana, one reviewer says it's a neo-western, whatever that means! I suppose it's since Jess is actually a woman, pretending to be a man, that this is not your traditional western. I almost wish it hadn't been labeled a western, as I think many will overlook it and miss out on a literary gem. Yep, gotta love those book groups!

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  4. The label "western" doesn't really tell me anything -- I realize that I've never read a book with this label, and I don't know if it just means a book set in the Old West. I also don't know dates that would qualify a book to be labeled so.

    Are Willa Cather's books westerns? Some by Wallace Stegner? Maybe it's the same conundrum that people face in labels like Science Fiction for Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing. Why do you call this a Western? Or is it the publisher that gave it the label?

    best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Mae, you are right. "Western" is not quite accurate in that it's simply literary fiction set in the Old West in the late 1800s. I googled Western and came up with this:

      noun
      1.
      a film, television drama, or novel about cowboys in western North America, set especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

      So, maybe the label does fit. However, I would say that Cather's books are not Westerns, but rather "Great Plains Literature."

      Hope this helps.

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  5. I squirm when I think about reading a Western. Gun? Violence? Cattle drives? No, it does not sound like my sort of read.

    Explain this, then. One hundred percent of the Westerns I have read (okay, I've only read three) I've rated five stars. Crazy.

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    1. Deb, I didn't think it was my sort of read either, but it turned out to be more of a coming-of-age story and a character study, rather than a book filled with nothing but gunfights and rowdy bar fights between cowboys. Now I'm curious about the Westerns you have read and loved! Do tell!

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  6. I'm not a fan of westerns and the no chapter thing would drive me nuts. but a good book is a good book. I'll have to look out for this one.

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    1. Stacy, in spite of the lack of chapter markings, and the fact that it IS a western, I still think it's worthwhile. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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