Berkshire Eagle Book Club

Our reviews: 'Whiskey When We're Dry'


The Book: "Whiskey When We're Dry," by John Larison

Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (Aug. 21, 2018)

Synopsis: In the spring of 1885, 17-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family's homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess's quest lands her in the employ of the territory's violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah--dead or alive. Wrestling with her brother's outlaw identity, and haunted by questions about her own, Jess must outmaneuver those who underestimate her, ultimately rising to become a hero in her own right.

To start, I will say, that aside from the movie "Tombstone" and the television show, "Westworld," I am not a fan of the western genre. So, as one can imagine, settling into a world so distinctly set in a post-Civil War American West was not easy as I undertook the task of reading, "Whiskey When We're Dry."

There were many times during the first 100 pages that I wanted to toss aside the story of 17-year-old Jessilyn Harney and not look back. But, knowing that I needed to push on, I stuck with the book, despite my heavy dislike for the use of a particular dialect. (I'm sure it sounds handsome and historically accurate when spoken.)

While I initially disliked this novel, I eventually warmed to it. At its heart, "Whiskey When We're Dry," is a coming-of-age story in which a teenage girl struggles to find herself in a world where the options for women are limited to mother, maiden, crone or whore. Not willing to take on any of those roles, she strikes out to find her estranged brother — now a wanted outlaw with his own gang — dressed as a man. But even in the dress of a man, Jessilyn, now Jesse, isn't at ease, as she is always struggling to do things "like a man is wont to do." It is only after reuniting with her brother and settling in with his gang, that she seems comfortable in her own skin. It took some time, but I'm glad I stuck with this book that took me outside of my comfort zone.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry magazine editor

This book suffers the same pacing issues as "Where the Crawdads Sing," and for the same plot points: A young woman, abandoned by her brother, tends to her father until his death, upon which she must become self-reliant. In this case, it's followed by the main character dressing as a boy and hitting the trail, heading across the post-Civil War West to find her outlaw-cum-prophet brother. It's 300 pages of a misery of the acutest kind before the plot picks up with the barest promise of an LGBT romance, ending, too soon and predictably, with death and tragedy. I'd like more protagonists like Jess, that are not white, not male, and not heterosexual, but we should have moved beyond the point where these characters are just cannon fodder to propel the happy ending of a heterosexual couple that's not even introduced until the fourth volume. AVOID.

— Meggie Baker, calendar clerk

Simply put, I could not put this book down once I started reading. John Larison's novel is a gripping trip through what identity means, and the lengths we will go to create fake personas to fill real-world needs. The story of Jessilyn Harney and her journey to find her brother is one of truth, deception, violence and the realities of living in the brutal West. Harney's journey as a woman in a man's clothing is gripping itself, but Larison's ability to bring in peripheral characters and make their identity issues feel important is what made this book a hit. From Jess' brother, Noah, to gunslingers Drummond and Greenie, to the curious case of Constance Pearl, Larison fills his book with memorable characters that you start to really care about. The book doesn't end at a family reunion, and the events that transpire after Jess and Noah meet leave the reader questioning what is morally right, what it means to be comfortable in your own skin and how people could turn to violence to try and find a cure for the problems they face. Larison's writing style does change throughout the novel — the language gets much more modern as the story progresses — and there are some scenes that could have been left on the editing room floor, but overall Larison weaves a thrilling novel that left me wanting more.

— Geoff Smith, sports editor

I admit that right from the start, I knew "Whiskey When We're Dry" by John Larison was not going to be my cup of tea. Post-Civil War westerns — and a coming-of-age novel as well — are not my thing. And once I opened the book, I wanted to close it forever. I thought the first 100 pages would never end and the dialect used by Jess, her brother Noah and their "Pa" irritated me. I found myself constantly correcting their grammar.

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After those 100 pages, things got a little better — I stopped correcting the grammar — maybe because the author had found his stride at that point, or maybe because the deadline for me to finish the book was looming. There is too much going on in this book, including sub-plots and background information you really don't need or want. Without revealing too much, after Pa is killed in an accident, Jessilyn "Jess" disguises herself as a man and goes looking for her brother, who had run away as a teen. The brother, when she finds him? A noted outlaw with a bounty on his head, who just happens to be an evangelical cult leader. The only thing not included in the book is the arrival of a two-headed alien ... the cavalry and the militia, yes, but no alien.

Don't. Waste. Your. Time.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

I wanted to love this book. The old Laura Ingalls Wilder lover in me found the dialect easy enough to adapt to, and the details of the tough terrain and old West life appealed to my childhood fascination with Post-Civil War America. But as the plot unfolded, so did my belief and interest in Jess' life. There were far too many jumps in character development — first Jess teaches herself in no time flat to become a sharpshooter, then joins the ranks of hired men to protect the governor while she searches for her outlaw brother. Larger, worthwhile themes such as gender equality and sexuality skirt around the edges of this book, but never reach their full potential. Author John Larison goes into graphic detail to describe the bloody business of living like an outlaw in the West, but leaves the reader wondering what really happened between Jess and her few love interests. More than once I asked myself: "Did what I think just happen, happen? Or did they just give each other a bath?" Jess is a complicated character, living in a complicated time. But in the end, I was left with more "what just happened?" rather than a sense of closure, or at least that my time and investment into her life and story was worth my time.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features

Win a copy of the book

If you would like to take home a copy of "Whiskey When We're Dry," email or write to Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features, and tell her what Berkshire cultural institution is your favorite. A comment will be picked at random.

What you have to do: Send your comment via email to Or, via mail: Lindsey Hollenbaugh, The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield MA, 01201. Please send your comment by Friday, Dec. 28. In your email or letter, include your first and last name and mailing address. Good luck and happy reading!

Read Along 

The next book we'll be reading is "There There" by Tommy Orange

As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow — some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent — momentum builds toward a shocking yet inevitable conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle's death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle's memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss.

Read along with us and email Lindsey Hollenbaugh your thoughts to be included in our next book club edition, on the second Sunday of December. Email


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