Willie (don’t you dare call her Daisy) at seventeen is in charge of the family consisting of her brother Micah and seven year old twins – Calvin and Catherine, a real ornery handful. Her mother died of the “disease” which has destroyed any semblance of an orderly life for those living in Glory, Texas. Her pa, Harrison Wilcox, always prone to drink, is now mostly MIA, spending his time at the Homestead bar getting drunk and gambling. Life is tough enough with a small pile of money which is quickly being depleted by the monthly protection dues paid to the Judge who runs the town, but it promises to get worse when McAllister confronts Willie, demanding she repay the $400 winnings her pa stole the night before. Wilcox is long gone and nobody has that kind of cash to lend, so Willie decides to hire some hunters to guide her through the open desert to Best, a larger town where she’s sure her dad is hiding out with his newfound bounty. Pa should be the one to suffer the consequences of his actions, not his innocent children.
So far Devil Until Dust by Emma Berquist sounds like a straightforward western taking place about ten years after the end of the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant is President of the United States, but it’s not gun slingers and wild animals the town folks fear, it’s the shakes, disease riddled zombie like creatures who have lost all sense of humanity and thrive by drinking blood. Animals are the easiest to catch, but shakes like the taste of humans, even devouring those like themselves, unlucky enough to get killed. Of course, if you survive the bite of these sub humans, it’s only a matter of time before you’re infected too. That’s why towns are fenced in and guarded and nobody travels without a shake hunter armed and ready to shoot the beasts since it’s a matter of us vs them. Those in the North and on the West Coast have stopped building the transcontinental railroad system, leaving the infected parts of the country to “handle” it on their own.
So Willie goes on the road through the West Texan desert with two brothers, Curtis and Ben, to reach Best and bring her Pa to justice. This quest takes some unexpected turns in a YA book which combines a coming of age story with a dystopian western in an alternative history introspectively narrated by a young girl who rejects her femininity in order to survive in an apocalyptic, dust-filled world riddled with epidemic created demons and egocentric men trying to get ahead by taking advantage of anyone who can’t defend themselves (although there are a few good hearted souls scattered throughout the book).
Definitely readable with super short chapters, and, although somewhat predictable, this debut novel is worth a look. Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.