Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted tackles social injustice at a future time where modernization has been reversed to a setting more like the Old Wild West. In her previous novel, Magic for Liars, Gailey explores fantasy and wizardry with an emphasis on the descriptive elements of storytelling, while Upright Women Wanted is told with quick action and blunted dialogue.
Rarely does a Western (spaghetti, neo, classic, etc.) exclusively deal with the feminine journey. It’s even more unique to have multiple female lead characters drive wagons and ride horses from town to dusty town, delivering “Approved Materials.” Westerns typically tackle issues of overt masculinity, e.g., the tribulations of male cowboys. Upright Women Wanted shoots holes through this stereotype with gun-toting Librarians who start on a crusade of sorts after a catastrophic event leaves the United States in a state of disarray and isolation where modern conveniences have been destroyed or abandoned. Librarians are seemingly spreading the approved word of the government, but upon closer observation, there is something more humanitarian happening. Not everything is at it seems in this misadventure-cum-hero’s-journey where battles between good and evil require the survivors to continuously course correct, question themselves, and fight on.
In keeping with the queer-female-as-heroine theme, men play bandits and a sheriff who has gone bad, although there is at least one outstanding male doctor who is there to help repair any bodily harm incurred by the Librarians. The trail-riding women speak like bronco-busting rodeo riders, creating a fascinating juxtaposition between the rough-and-ready, tobacco-chewing cowboy, and the new nonbinary independent-thinking female prepared to take charge of her life and right the many wrongs of the past.
The lead character, Esther, is on a journey to sexual liberation. She has escaped an abusive environment by jumping onto the back of the Librarian’s supply wagon headed to Utah. The wagon train is driven by two lesbians, Bet and Leda, who are in a relationship. They are joined by a nonbinary single female friend named Cye, and later by three other women. The stage is set for young Esther to be awed by the displays of affection between Bet and Leda and to envy their freedom of expression. In a telling moment, after witnessing the two cuddling under a horse blanket, Esther has an epiphany about her self-loathing. She realizes how her life could be different if she knew “how to like the person she was instead of fighting it.” This moment of stark reflection starts her on a journey to self-actualization.
Written from an observing narrator, Upright Women Wanted provides a matter-of-fact discussion of challenging topics without engaging in intense emotionality, but that doesn’t mean the story is without emotion. On the contrary, emotions run high when the Librarians are ambushed and are forced to engage in a fight for their lives. When the storytelling switches to a narrator who is privy to Esther’s inner thoughts, her real character is revealed, and it wasn’t by accident that she found the Librarians. While the other characters are known only through their behavior and dialogue, Esther becomes the character whose journey we’re on. This switch in point of view is done seamlessly like the beautiful natural storyteller Gailey is in all her work.
The Western setting provides some comic relief to a story predicated by dark events and an unhappy past. In more somber moments, Esther reflects on her abusive father, her mother’s silent consent, and her fiancé’s menace, conveying the pain she has endured. Esther’s secret first love, Beatriz, died while being punished for reasons we learn as the story unfolds. The parallels to victims of domestic violence and persecution become apparent as the Librarians continue their pilgrimage. Thank goodness for the sanctuary created by the Librarians! Esther’s inner strength gradually appears and grows, impressing the other more seasoned Librarians. In this version of her life, the victim learns to look out for herself and defend against future abuses.
Upright Women Wanted is about a nonbinary woman learning to love herself in the new Old West, but it’s about surviving abuse, overcoming obstacles, starting over, and ultimately learning who your real friends are.
Upright Women Wanted
By Sarah Gailey
Tom Doherty Associates (A Tor.com Book)
Published February 4, 2020