Whiskey When We're Dry
by Larison, John

Facing starvation and worse when she is orphaned on her family's 1885 homestead, a 17-year-old sharpshooter cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy to journey across the mountains in search of her outlaw brother.

John Larison spent much of his childhood in remote regions of Australia, the Caribbean, Canada, the South Pacific, Alaska, and the American West before graduating from high school in Ithaca, New York. He studied philosophy and literature at the University of Oregon, and became a renowned fly-fishing guide ahead of earning an MFA from Oregon State University, where he stayed to teach while writing Whiskey When We’re Dry. He lives with his family in rural Oregon.

Teenage Jessilyn, motherless since birth and suddenly fatherless, too, abandons her family's ranch in 1885 to find her outlaw older brother, Noah. So limited are Jessilyn's possibilities as a girl that she disguises herself as a man for the journey west, a transition made smoother by her ace shooting skills. Larison gifts Jess with a strong voice to narrate her own story: "I ain't never been the kind to pity myself, ain't no profit in it." Jess' treacherous mission brings out survival instincts that are barely stronger than her horror over the brutality it requires. When she, as Jesse Straight, is hired as a guardsman for a powerful governor with a personal vendetta against Noah, Jess' identities could collide in a dangerous way; and if she finds him, will Noah even see his little sister in her anymore? Larison (Holding Lies, 2011) writes the novel's many action scenes with restraint, and adds considerations of race, class, and religion to Jess' realizations about gender. Larison's western epic has wide appeal and is already in development for film. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

A young woman with a knack for trick shooting heads west in the late 1800s to track down her outlaw brother. Jessilyn Harney, the folksy narrator of Larison's third novel (Holding Lies, 2011, etc.), has grown up watching her family lose its grip on its prairie homestead: Her mother died young, and her father is an alcoholic scraping by with small cattle herds. He's also persistently at loggerheads with Jess' brother, Noah, who eventually runs off to, if the wanted posters are to be believed, lead a Jesse James-style criminal posse. So when dad dies as well, there's nothing for teenage Jess to do but head west to find her brother, which she does disguised as a man. ("A man can be invisible when he wants to be.") Her skill with a gun gets her in the good graces of a territorial governor (Larison is stingy with place names, but we're near the Rockies), which ultimately leads to Noah and a series of revelations about the false tales of accomplishment that men cloak themselves wit h. Indeed, Jess' success depends on repeatedly exploiting false masculine bravado: "I found no shortage of men with a predilection for gambling and an unfounded confidence in their own abilities with a sidearm," she writes. The novel's plot is a familiar Western, with duels, raids, and betrayals, brought thematically up to date with a few scenes involving closeted sexuality and mixed-race relationships. But its main distinction is Jess' narrative voice: flinty, compassionate, unschooled, but observant about a violent world where men "eat bullets and walk among ghosts." The dialogue sometimes lapses into saloon-talk truisms ("Men is all the time hiding behind words"; "Being a boss is always knowing your true size"). But Jess herself is a remarkable hero. Like a pair of distressed designer jeans, the narrative's scruffiness can feel a little too engineered, but the narrator's voice is engaging and down-to-earth. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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