September 2018

Girl vs. wild

By John Larison

Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why.

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Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why.

Set in 1885 in the heart of the Midwest, the novel shirks the traditional white-hat-versus-black-hat shtick for a more grounded, emotional view of life on the range. In this instance, we experience the wild country’s hardships through the eyes of 17-year-old Jessilyn Harney as she wrestles to find her place in a man’s world.

The only woman in the Harney household after her mother dies while giving birth to her, Jess does “the woman work” of “washings and stewings and mendings and tendings,” while Pa and her older brother, Noah, labor in the fields. Pa’s overbearing demeanor ultimately drives Noah away, leaving Jess to care for her father as the farm suffers. After her father is killed in a fall from his horse, Jess attempts to carry on by herself before ultimately realizing she needs help; she needs Noah.

Disguising herself as a man by cutting her hair short and binding her chest, Jess sets off on her faithful mare, Ingrid, with a meager supply of rations, her pa’s fiddle and the deed to the Harney land. “I was a Harney, dammit, and my destiny was to find my brother and bring him home and thereby save our family land.”

Carrying out the feat is easier said than done. Noah, for starters, has become the outlaw leader of a wild gang with a $10,000 bounty on his head, while Jess, who takes on the manlier moniker of Jesse Montclair, discovers the harsh brutality of life in the West. Even after she is beaten and robbed, Jess’ determination—and skill as a sharpshooter—pushes her onward.

Like Philipp Meyer’s The Son or Robert Olmstead’s Savage Country, Whiskey When We’re Dry draws on Larison’s own experiences with the “cowboy arts” to paint a vivid portrait of the American West as witnessed by an unforgettable character.


This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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