Book Review – Dry by Neil and Jarrod Shusterman
Reviewed by Kimberly Christensen
Young adult fiction
Before you start this book, make sure you have a cold glass of water handy!
Dry is a multifaceted exploration of a major drought event in Southern California, set in the modern day and entirely realistic feeling. The book follows five main characters, four teens and one younger sibling, who find themselves in an uneasy coalition to survive California’s Tap Out, caused when prolonged lack of rainfall meets self-interested politics and the water supply to a major metropolitan area is cut off suddenly and without preparation.
The book centers around high school junior Alyssa, who lives with her parents, uncle, younger brother Garrett, and dog in a middle-class neighborhood in Orange County, California. When the Tap Out takes place, Alyssa’s family doesn’t immediately spring into action. They trust that the lack of water is temporary and that some benevolent state official will figure things out. Rather than heading to Costco straight away, they wait, and by the time they do get there, the place is picked clean. Fellow shoppers are getting cagey, stealing things out of each other’s carts and refusing to share. Vulnerable people aren’t prioritized. Violence is threatened. And some are going to figure out how to profit from this while others go thirsty.
In the subsequent days, things take a turn for the worse. People become ill from dehydration. Hard choices have to be made around keeping pets alive or setting them free to try to make it on their own. Some residents leave the region—or try to. Others head to emergency shelters, which emergency management is supposedly supplying with water. At last, desalination machines are brought to the coast. Alyssa and Garrett’s parents head to the beach with jugs to collect water, but they don’t come back.
The kids, growing thirstier and more desperate, form an alliance with the survivalist teen next door, Kelton. His parents reluctantly take Alyssa and Garrett in. Kelton goes with Alyssa and Garrett to the beach to search for their parents, but all they find is chaos and water zombies—people who have become so thirsty that they will do anything for even one sip of water. There they meet Jacqui, who becomes the fourth member of their group.
As things devolve around them, the young people realize they have to make an attempt at getting to Kelton’s family’s hidden shelter, which is stocked with emergency supplies and water. But the neighborhood has degenerated into chaos around them, leaving Kelton’s parents unable to help. Alyssa thinks perhaps her uncle—who has gone to his girlfriend’s—might provide assistance, so they take a car and head for the hills. But with each turn, the situation grows worse, and the teens confront the growing dystopia around them. They are literally in a race against time, trying to get to water and safety before their biological processes shut down for good.
Dry is a difficult book in that it’s so plausible and set in a time that could be now. Anyone who wants to pretend that the impacts of climate change are far off will find that myth shattered by the detailed world-building of this book. Dry is well-researched and believable, layered with intelligent depictions of the different ways in which people will psychologically respond to this kind of crisis. By choosing to follow multiple points of view of the different characters, the reader gets a nuanced take on the motivations and ethical quandaries faced by each of the characters. The authors also weave in a few random points of view from other characters who are facing this crisis, which adds to the depth of the story by providing background information and additional perspectives.
Dry is the sort of book that should serve as a wake-up call to all of us, especially as we plan for a climate-impacted future. Moral issues like those raised in the book should be considered in advance, with governmental bodies making active plans to protect the most vulnerable and to help keep panic from taking over. Having read this book in a COVID world, I must confess that I am not terribly convinced that we as a society will choose to do this, and that we might well find ourselves hoarding plastic water bottles in the way that we hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but I think that planning for the inevitability of a climate-impacted world is certainly possible. And if nothing else, this book is certainly a motivator for individuals and families to plan out their personal strategies and to get their emergency supplies in order!
All-in-all a well-written, well-informed and thought-provoking book, even if it is way too realistic in its portrayal of a present-world dystopia.