A young woman with a knack for trick shooting heads west in the late 1800s to track down her outlaw brother.
Jessilyn Harney, the folksy narrator of Larison’s third novel (Holding Lies, 2011, etc.), has grown up watching her family lose its grip on its prairie homestead: Her mother died young, and her father is an alcoholic scraping by with small cattle herds. He’s also persistently at loggerheads with Jess' brother, Noah, who eventually runs off to, if the wanted posters are to be believed, lead a Jesse James–style criminal posse. So when dad dies as well, there’s nothing for teenage Jess to do but head west to find her brother, which she does disguised as a man. (“A man can be invisible when he wants to be.”) Her skill with a gun gets her in the good graces of a territorial governor (Larison is stingy with place names, but we’re near the Rockies), which ultimately leads to Noah and a series of revelations about the false tales of accomplishment that men cloak themselves with. Indeed, Jess’ success depends on repeatedly exploiting false masculine bravado: “I found no shortage of men with a predilection for gambling and an unfounded confidence in their own abilities with a sidearm,” she writes. The novel’s plot is a familiar Western, with duels, raids, and betrayals, brought thematically up to date with a few scenes involving closeted sexuality and mixed-race relationships. But its main distinction is Jess’ narrative voice: flinty, compassionate, unschooled, but observant about a violent world where men “eat bullets and walk among ghosts.” The dialogue sometimes lapses into saloon-talk truisms (“Men is all the time hiding behind words”; “Being a boss is always knowing your true size”). But Jess herself is a remarkable hero.
Like a pair of distressed designer jeans, the narrative's scruffiness can feel a little too engineered, but the narrator's voice is engaging and down-to-earth.