‘Whiskey When We’re Dry’
By John Larison
There’s an increasingly rich vein of storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction, about the ways people of yesteryear dealt with transgender issues. It was, of course, a “thing” before we had the language for it.
In John Larison’s new novel “Whiskey When We’re Dry” (his third) out last week and already praised by Entertainment Weekly, O Magazine and other outlets, we meet a teen protagonist thrust into crisis.
Jessilyn Harney never knew her mother.
She died in childbirth, leaving Jessilyn’s father to raise Jessilyn and her brother, Noah, who was five years older. Noah took care of Jessilyn when their father drank too much syrup. He was a good brother, making sure she was warm, dressed and protected, until the year she turned 13 and, as young men are wont to do, Noah had a fight with his father and rode away.
For a few years, Jessilyn did what she could to help her father run things, but he’d gotten addled in that fight and was never the same. Sensing the truth, perhaps, he schooled her on sharp-shooting for protection, and talked of marrying her off. Six days after he left on a solitary ride, Jessilyn found his bones scattered. Not knowing what to do, she asked if the nearby Mormon family might take her in, but she was denied.
That was when Jessilyn went into the old wooden box that Noah left behind. She found some of his outgrown clothes — things that fit her fine — and she became Jesse.
Women on the frontier circa 1885 stuck out, he learned, but a baby-faced man was mostly ignored. Still, he was soft and that cost him; he was unwise to the world, and that cost more, though guns would ultimately protect Jesse and they’d generate money in wagers with fools who thought a lad wasn’t good with a Colt.
But Jesse didn’t want money; he only wanted one thing. Noah had taken up with some outlaws and there was a bounty on his head, dead or alive. Sharp-shooting was fun, but Jesse only wanted to find Noah before the law did.
Reading “Whiskey When We’re Dry” is like opening dozens of little gifts at Christmas: each time a surprise occurs, it’s a delight, the last no less than the first. Author John Larison does that over and over again, gifting readers with a great opening, exceptional characters and plenty to unwrap.
Set in the years following the Civil War in an unnamed state, this book offers a lot to fans of many genres: for sure, this is an oater, complete with hosses and outlaws. With stunningly described scenery, it’s a book for adventurers. There’s a gauzily told romance with another woman here, and small crushes on gun-slinging men. It’s un-PC, so beware. There’s heroism in this novel, but not where you might anticipate it.
If you’re in need of a sweeping epic — a film adaptation is already in development — that offers plenty of mini-shocks throughout, it’s right here.