The Western genre comes and goes in waves. It can be romantic, revisionist, gritty, campy…. and feminist? 2018’s Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison explores the human character through the eyes of Jess, a girl in the West, who sets off to avenge her Pa by dressing as a man and slinging lead. Sure, that might sound like the start of one of your granddaddy’s Westerns, but Jess quickly gets a notion to join her outlaw brother, Noah, and pretty soon she cuts her own trail in an exploration of gender roles both in society and family.
Jess screws up all the time. I love it when that happens. Temptation calls for Jess to go by Mary Sue – that is, to be the perfect character from fan fiction who rights all the wrongs that nobody seems to have thought up before – and she avoids it. When Jess makes a rash decision, it has consequences. A large portion of this book involves harebrained schemes that end in Jess barely escaping with her life. Though her journey begins with the decision to call herself a man – which is only a falsehood in her taboo world – but Jess continues to deceive people beyond necessity. Jess harms people she meets even when she has a better path available. Jess makes historically acceptable, but still racist remarks about American Indians, despite being biracial herself (Latina mom, Anglo dad). She rarely comes out and says that she did wrong, but she steals, cheats, murders, and teeters on the edge of alcoholism just like everyone else in this book.
I haven’t read a book with this scope that I enjoyed this much in a long time. Not only does Jess ride all over the Rocky Mountains, but she meets a vibrant cast of characters that carve new niches familiar Western tropes. The old standbys, the gunfighters robed in Confederate battle nostalgia like Drummond lurk around the pompous easterners like Senator Scott and greedy tycoons like the Governor. Scheming Mormons creep off the pages of Riders of the Purple Sage and yes, there’s whores with hearts-of-gold. But, there’s also fresh characters as well, like Annette the Moonshine Kid, who steals Jess’s heart with her tough girl fighting and fast shooting. She’s clearly too awesome live through the end of this book. Jess also meets a fellow gunfighter, an eerily calm African-American man, employed by rich men as a gladiator with a revolver. Her famous brother, Noah, appropriately steals the show by creating a strange combo of religious commune and Robin Hood militia out in the wilderness.
Such an enormous cast of characters means that Jess doesn’t realistically have time to catalog the life story of every single person she meets, so it’s forgivable when some backstories disappear, but still disappointing that American Indians remain outsiders. At times, Jess’s focus on the story allows minor characters to operate with improbable smoothness in the background – like the old butler who just happens to be a competent doctor because he witnessed a Civil War field hospital. Though clearly an artistic choice, the vague nature of the setting grinds sometimes, too, when geography and culture become problematic.
Overall, an awesome story about freedom and gender identity. It breathes life in a genre that has finally faced due criticism by the present generation about its gender and racial attitudes. However, Jess avoids merely being a cheerleader for diversity: she kicks, fights, and loves her path in this world. This book easily offers a refreshing delight to Western familiar, and an introduction to a new chapter of the genre. Eagerly awaiting the silver screen version.
Three stars out of five.
Quote: “Your eyes opened and revealed the celestial forever.”
Three out of five stars