An outsider endures violence and redemption in the Wild West

A familiar trope of storytelling puts women and people of color on center stage.

 

“You should know I ain’t confessing on account I fear my Maker,” says Jess, the extraordinary narrator and unlikely hero of John Larison’s novel Whiskey When We’re Dry. “Ain’t nothing that could happen to me that I don’t rightly deserve.”

Jess’ honesty and steadfast sense of justice anchor this book, a richly imagined version of a classic Wild West tale that probes the origins of violence in human nature.  Whiskey When We’re Dry compresses the wide scale of Western brutality — from barroom brawls to military campaigns — into a story both unique and universal, as harshly beautiful as it is perfectly paced.

After her mother dies giving birth to her, Jess is raised rough by her father and brother, Noah, on a lonely ranch “where desert met lake.” The “woman work” falls to her, but she watches when her father teaches Noah to shoot. While the men are off tending the herd, Jess practices with her father’s Colt. Her talent with the weapon becomes necessary after her father dies and Noah runs away. Disguised as a man, she sets off to find her brother — now the wanted leader of a gang of outlaws — and convince him to come home. Seeking clues to his whereabouts, she finds employment as a guard for the Governor, an archetypically villainous plutocrat who sees Noah’s banditry as a personal affront.

It’s a plot setup straight out of any spaghetti Western. But Whiskey balances gritty realism, lyrical description and good old-fashioned page-turning action without ever feeling contrived. And it offers a refreshingly diverse cast of characters. This is a Western in which women and people of color not only exist but take center stage, and which acknowledges that gender and sexuality have always been fluid.

Illustration by Luna Anna Archey

The story relies on a familiar device — a young woman dressing as a man to seek freedom or vengeance or glory. This time-honored trope often reinforces the idea that heroic traits are essentially male; “strong female characters” are simply women who emulate male characteristics. But Jess, uncomfortable fully inhabiting either role, transcends this binary. She aims the same critical eye at everything around her, including gender expectations. Once living among Noah’s Wild Bunch, outcasts and misfits of “all colors and persuasions,” she begins to carve out a life defined more by her talents and instincts than her gender, in a group where actions, more than identity, determine acceptance.  

Jess’ eloquent voice propels the narration, lending levity to the book’s heavy moral themes and ringing true even as it blends sophisticated prose with matter-of-fact vernacular. After shooting a man in a mob threatening the Governor:

“A potent whiskey come over me then, all at once. It poured from their eyes when those eyes flinched from me. In that whiskey was proof I too was made of grit and gravel and could not be blown from this earth by simple winds. … I was high now, so high I could let myself believe we was on the side of right.”

We share Jess’ experiences and her growing consciousness of the world beyond her family’s ranch, a wild and dusty unnamed state where the Civil War, two decades past, still casts a shadow over attempts to invent a new society. “My calling is to turn wilderness into America,” the Governor tells Jess. The battle between his dreams of dominion and the Robin Hood ethic of Noah’s gang, who see protecting the underclass as their own divine calling, reflects a dynamic familiar in our new Gilded Age.

The outlaws and outcasts may be the heroes, but no one escapes critique. “I know it don’t make no sense on paper, but I believe a soul can be on both sides,” Jess muses, as she experiences both the thrill of violence and the weight of its moral implications. In the era of manifest destiny, brutality occurred at a systemic level. But Whiskey also shows the day-to-day cruelty so often inflicted by and on small, tight-knit bands of people who depended on each other for survival. Jess describes the chilling bond created by the pursuit of vengeance:

“It occurred to me then that if I died today, they would deliver war to my killer. If I was dragged off by wolves, they would slaughter those wolves one by one to recover me. We had together done what we done, together and without dissent. We was a republic unto ourselves. So long as we was together, the Lord dwelled no farther away than the nearest patriot.”

Whiskey builds to a gripping and almost unbearably tragic climax, complicating Jess’, and our own, attempts to wrestle with whether violence on any scale can ever be justified. But in telling her story, Jess makes the case that by owning the dark parts of our histories, laying ourselves bare to judgment, we offer redemption to those who come after. As she writes to the next generation of her family: “Our story is yours to make.” 

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....