I got an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman. As this means the version I read is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
Alyssa, a teenager living in the Los Angeles area, turns on a faucet one day. And nothing comes out. It’s the Tap-Out: the massive drought that’s been ravaging the region, and which has now reached such a severity that the California government has had to turn off water supplies to civilians until the situation can be rectified. Soon, after her parents do not return home, Alyssa finds herself in a near-apocalyptic world. But the threat isn’t zombies, or a plague, or nuclear war, or extraterrestrials. The threat is people, and just how far they—and she—will go to get some of this most precious liquid.
This book was an intense, thrilling read. The characters are strong, the pacing is excellent, and the plot is wonderful.
Alyssa is quite bright and full of lots of common sense. I immediately was rooting for her, despite knowing her survival was basically a given (I mean, it’s a kids’ book. Pretty good bet she’ll live just because of that, right?). Her little brother, Garrett, provides motivation for her to be creative in fighting for his survival—even at the expense of her own. And on his own, Garrett is a strong character. Clearly the Shusterman men know how to write children; Garrett speaks and acts like a real ten-year-old, but the maturity and seriousness he must harness in this scenario proves to be quite sobering and interesting to witness as the plot progresses.
The siblings’ neighbor, Kelton, is a different type of kid. He has been raised by a father obsessed with “prepping” for the apocalypse, so he is a bit strange. He knows a lot more about living in the wilderness and fighting for one’s life than most people. His skills are an advantage for him, and by proxy for Alyssa too, but his inherited (lack of) social skills and fatalistic mindset prove a problem. Kelton’s development explores the conflicting ideas of putting one’s own survival first vs. being humane. The others they encounter, a street-smart, jaded girl named Jacqui, and a silver-spoon brat named Henry, also grapple with this. All in all, this motley crew makes for a fascinating mixture of worldviews, behaviors, and values that play off—and clash with—each other very well.
The format is rather compelling—we see the action mostly through Alyssa’s, Kelton’s, and Jacqui’s eyes. However, we also get asides from other characters: a family at an airport, desperately trying to get out of California; an older woman trapped on a standstill freeway; the manager of a power plant dealing with an outage; and many others. Seeing these POVs gives the readers a unique view of the situation, as we learn information our main characters aren’t privy to. Then, later, long enough to have almost forgotten these other scenes, we cross paths with some of these characters in new ways. A girl Alyssa runs into in a supermarket has her own scene; a woman from an aside earlier crosses paths with Garrett. It’s brilliant.
And seeing from such a variety of perspectives not only makes for unique narration, but also gives depth and breadth to a scenario that seems so possible. Each event that led to this point is explored well. Basically, a combination of changing climate, distracted emergency resources, and simple bureaucratic insufficiency snowballs (pardon my ironic term) and feels chillingly realistic. For me, that is the source of true tension in this book, palpable from the very first pages… the idea that, due to the way our environment is transforming, this could become real.
That’s what makes this story work so well: if you distill (pardon the water pun) this plot down to its key conflict, you’ll say it’s man vs. nature, but also man vs. man. Our gang struggles with getting water but also with others who have the same goal. And in this setting, everyone is—must be—selfish. So just as global warming is simultaneously natural and manmade, so are the dangers in this book. Our own worst enemies are…? Yep. Humans.
This dual conflict allows moral questions to abound as these kids must prioritize and make impossible decisions. Are you willing to break the law to save yourself, to save your friends and family? Are you willing to fight, even to kill? And even if you’re willing, should you? These questions are presented and dealt with masterfully—but not answered. That is for the readers to do. Still, the ending of the book was gripping, rewarding, poignant, and satisfying.
I don’t have many criticisms—perhaps the relationship between Alyssa and Kelton. I’m just burnt out on romance in YA. I personally don’t want them together, due to spoiler-y information I won’t detail here. But then again, I’ve been reflecting for a couple days on it, and I can admit now this pair and the way their bond developed and shifted throughout the book was handled better than most books and ended on a note that will probably appease everyone.
In the end, this book is a survival thriller, a call to action, and a celebration. It’s a survival thriller that has these characters fighting the rapidly ticking clock in a high-stakes plot. It’s a call to action, implicit in every line, to fight climate change so this fiction does not become our reality. And it’s sort of a celebration, a declaration that even in the most dire circumstances, people can manage to help one another, to give in to their humane nature.
Overall rating: 9/10
This is the second book by Neal Shusterman I have read (the other being Unwind). What should I read by him next?