As the Crow Reads: Whiskey When We’re Dry

I must admit, when I picked up this book at the beginning of the month, I wasn’t confident. I’ve never cared much for westerns, but I did grow up around horses, (of which there is one on the cover) and whiskey is my drink of choice, so I decided to give it a try. I could not be happier with my leap of faith. Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a triumph of a story, and has earned itself a place on my shelf of “Read Agains.” 

Published by Penguin Random House, Whiskey When We’re Dry follows the story of orphan Jessica Harney, through a childhood riddled with poverty and abuse, to frontier lands on a search for her long-lost brother. From housekeep and rancher to straight-shooter and outlaw, the reader is drawn into Jess’s story and finds themselves lost in pine forests and sage deserts right alongside Jess. With impressive originality and monumental creativity, Larison weaves new fabric out of old western storytelling, leaving us breathless and looking for more.   

What I Liked 

It isn’t often that the story of a Western is also the story of a woman coming into herself. Usually, a woman’s place in a Western is to be either saved, loved, or quite possibly both. Instead, this story is told by a young woman; a woman fighting for her life and the lives of those around her, while simultaneously trying to understand life itself. I loved experiencing the wild west through the eyes of a woman, and the author took great care with her character to ensure her authenticity.  

Not only does the story celebrate the power and strength of women, but also the unique experiences of our world in stunningly new ways. The relationships in the novel are a literary feast of diversity; from interracial to queer relationships, all are represented. I found this incredibly refreshing in a genre typically saturated with toxic masculinity, racism, and homophobia.  

Finally, I loved that this novel was a reinvention of the traditional Western in all the ways that mattered, but that it held fast to the genre in all other aspects. Instead of diluting the storyline in favor of being more socially conscious, the author chose to keep all the right things in a staunch and stocky Western, while eliminating problematic bias and undertones.  

What Was Missing 

Stylistically I have no complaints about this novel. The writing is tight, each word and sentence belongs and serves great purpose. It’s easy to see that the story was crafted and refined with great care, with the responsibility of telling such a groundbreaking story weighing heavily on the author’s shoulders. 

As is typical in any Western, there is an element of gore that simply isn’t to my personal taste. I acknowledge the place this kind of descriptive language has within the genre, however as a bedtime reader I can’t say this is the book that will send you off into peaceful dreams. The carnage is well-written however, no shortcuts were taken just for the sake of drama.  

Recommendation 

I would highly recommend this book to fiction lovers of all types, but specifically those who love westerns. It’s an impressive feat of literary genius and (at risk of sounding like the heroine,) it’s a heck of a good time! It’s a medium-length read, something to keep you company through a winter storm, or an overseas flight. I would not recommend this book for children under the age of 16, however, due to the gore and themes typical of a Western novel.  

About the Author 

John Larison is currently a resident of Philomath. He attended the University of Oregon, earning a Masters of Education, and worked as a fly-fishing guide and High School English Teacher until deciding to return to school at Oregon State University to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts. He currently lives in Bellfountain Oregon with his family and continues to write fiction. Learn more at his website.  

Whiskey When We’re Dry is available at Grass Roots Books. 

By Kyra Young