Dry, written by acclaimed YA author Neal Shusterman in collaboration with his son Jarrod Shusterman, takes place in Southern California, where an extreme drought has been going on since before the story even starts. Certain “Frivolous Use” initiatives have been put in place to conserve water (like don’t water the lawn or fill up your pool). But it isn’t enough, and when the taps run dry for good, neighbor is turned against neighbor in the desperate struggle for water.
The world is fleshed out using the points of view of four different characters. Alyssa, the main protagonist, must protect her brother on her own after her parents go missing. Kelton, the boy next door, belongs to a family of “preppers,” and has been preparing for a disaster like this for a long time. Jacqui is a wildcard who is thrown in the main character’s path by chance, and at first cares only about her own survival. Henry is a rich kid capitalizing on the drought by bartering with his family’s reserves of water. Much of the story consists of the cast’s struggle to make it to a disaster shelter built by Kelton’s parents; it’s like an apocalyptic travel novel. It isn’t a character-driven novel, but rather a plot-driven one that examines how being pressed for survival can change a person for better or worse. The characters take desperate actions they wouldn’t normally take to protect their loved ones.
Most speculative fiction stories like this don’t scare me because no matter what, they seem a step removed from reality. Dry isn’t like that. An extreme drought and raging fires in California are totally feasible, and the Shustermans were careful to use real places to make the story as true-to-life as possible. The story examines the governmental incompetence that could bring about such a disaster, and how media coverage affects relief efforts and public perception. Dry is also incredibly realistic because it shows humanity at its worse and its best: there are people organizing to bring relief to those dying of dehydration, but there are also people taking advantage of others’ desperation.
The novel is dedicated to “all those struggling to undo the effects of climate change.”
The descriptions in the book make it seem so real that I often found myself reaching for a bottle of water. It’s really eerie to watch the characters get closer and closer to dying of dehydration, to watch as their narration becomes overtaken by the need for just a single sip of water. Their higher brain functions slow down, and their throats and tongues completely dry out so they can barely speak. This book was exhilarating, compelling, and more terrifying than any horror novel I’ve ever read.