Why there haven’t been more speculative fiction set in the American west and southwest I’ll never know. It’s ideal for dystopian stories, particularly those starring marginalized characters. What with all the mythologizing of rugged individualism, wide open spaces, cowboys, and brutal colonialism, there is so much opportunity just waiting for authors to critique and criticize.
Sarah Gailey does just that with Upright Women Wanted. Through a clever conceit, sparky characters, and sheer force of will, their latest novella expertly tweaks the Western and dystopian genres.
Esther’s future is grim. The woman she loved was executed for keeping seditious materials as her future husband leers at her in ways she knows will only lead to something terrible. Her father is cold and abusive, and her mother distant and helpless. When two Librarians come to town to hand out state approved books, Esther makes a break for it. Stowing away on their wagon is her one and only chance at freedom. Of course Librarians Bet and Leda quickly discover her, but rather than send her home to a fate worse than death they agree to transport her to a more progressive territory.
Leda and Bet take pity on her and pair her up with Apprentice Librarian Cye to teach her the ropes. As much as Esther is determined to be a good girl who respects the laws of the state, she can’t help the butterflies she feels whenever Cye is near. If she works hard enough to impress Bet and Leda could she become a librarian too one day? But danger strikes on the plains. A mysterious rebel with a violent streak makes demands the Librarians can’t refuse while the patriarchy dogs their every move. An insurrection is coming and Esther is caught in the crossfire. Safety is just over the border, but as Esther comes to realize, sometimes it’s better to fight and die for what you want than to run and hide.
Sarah Gailey dedicated Upright Women Wanted “To everyone who thought they’d never live so long,” a note that perfectly encapsulates the emotional through line of the novella. This is a story about people carving out a life mostly outside a society that wants nothing more than to eradicate them. Rather than suffer under oppressive shame or surrender to the patriarchal whims of the men in power, they chose to forge their own path and make their own families. If you’ve never had someone tell you your identity is wrong or bad or sinful, if you’ve never experienced the crush of systemic oppression or the perpetual frustrations of microaggressions, then you might not recognize just how powerful, frightening, and awe-inspiring this act of defiance and self-preservation truly is.
Gailey often touches on the themes of identity and found families in their work, and never has it been more stripped down and authentic. The setting and plot are a little more bare bones than usual, but the tradeoff is a far more in depth exploration of a young woman on the verge of both finding what she’s been missing and losing everything. In Bet, Leda, and Cye she sees what she could have if she can shed the shame and self-loathing her town has foisted on her. Despite the story’s brevity, Gailey takes their time with Esther’s journey, both the literal one and the psychological.
One aspect of the story caught me like a burr in my shoe: the contrast between what the public thinks librarians are like and how we really are. The Librarians of Upright Women Wanted are perceived by the public and by Esther especially to be, well, upright. They are upstanding, respectable citizens doing the commendable work of spreading the good word of the State. That sense of duty is exactly what draws her to them – first because she thinks regulations will “fix” her and later because their rule-breaking offers freedom. In contrast, the public today think of librarians as daring champions for the first amendment and free speech. They see the tattoos and cardigans and vocal advocates and assume we’re all like that. Truthfully, I wish more of my fellow librarians were like Bet, Leda, and Cye, but unfortunately there are far too many who are just as close-minded Esther initially believed Librarians to be.
The public today doesn’t see all tension within librarianship about what our values are. Sometimes it spills over into the public sphere – such as the recent wave of public libraries providing TERFs space to share their hate speech – but for the most part we’re wrestling with it in conferences and Facebook pages and workshops and listservs. We have yet to experience an upheaval like the Romance Writers of America is undergoing, and who knows if we ever will. But the time will eventually come where we, like Esther, must decide what kind of librarians we want to be. Will we be state-sanctioned and politician-approved or will we drop our calls for neutrality and fight for the rights of those most vulnerable?
Upright Women Wanted is as gritty as a Western, as oppressive as post-apocalyptic, and as idealistic as hopepunk. It’s so well-written, its characters so well-developed, and its world so compelling that it feels longer than it is. As much as I dream of future novellas to expand the series, I am wholly satisfied with just this single entry. It takes a strong, competent hand to be able to tell such a profound story in only 176 pages. Sarah Gailey continues their streak of awesomeness.
Upright Women Wanted is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.