Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison
Genres: Western, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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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.
Let me start off by saying that this was my first western, so this is by no means an especially knowledgeable or well-informed opinion.
I suppose it makes sense to start first with authenticity. Again, bearing in mind that my only context for this novel is Bugs Bunny cartoons, Whiskey When We’re Dry felt to me as authentic as they come. I felt like I was reading some classic like Lonesome Dove, or like I was living in the unsettled California frontier. The dialogue, the scenery, the whiskey, it all rang so true and clear. The Wild West didn’t feel Holleywood-ized, but as bleak and barren and desperate as it must actually have been.
Yet it had this kind of glamour to it as well. The characters’ obsession with quick draw and gun fighting bordered on hero worship, almost nostalgic and otherworldly. Yet Jess ends up a part of the very thing she idolizes. This is not the story of your average Joe frontiersman the way Little House on the Prairie is, or even True Grit. It’s the story of the most notorious villains in California, and even if that glamour feels subtle, it permeates the novel.
As far as my personal enjoyment, I didn’t connect with this book as well as I’d hoped to. I loved the first chapter, the story of Jess’s childhood. But once she left the homestead I just stopped connecting with her. Her narrative voice is interesting and unique, but it’s aloofness, the very thing that makes it so interesting, made it hard for me to feel anything for her or her friends.
I also felt for the entire novel as if I was missing something important, and I think it has to do with the whiskey. Whiskey is practically its own character in the novel, always there and always important. But I never could figure out whether Jess feels positively or negatively about alcohol, and what conclusions the author wanted me to draw about it. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely drawing conclusions, but I felt like I was back in twelfth grade English when they told me The Old Man and the Sea was one huge metaphor and the entire thing went over my head. I felt like there was something about the whiskey that I just wasn’t getting. It made me feel a bit lost.
Finally, this novel is long and it is slow. It almost presents itself as an action-adventure type novel, with gunfights and raids and chases. But what little action there is unfolds very slowly. And the action is far and in-between. Instead this novel is very contemplative. I think the slow pace worked in its favor, actually, but since I was having a hard time connecting with it it made the whole thing sort of drag for me.
So if you like westerns and are well-versed in the genre, I heartily recommend this novel. If you’re looking for LGBTQ historical fiction I think this is worth the read. But if you’re looking for a good introduction to the western genre like I was, maybe try find something a little more accessible.