Upright Women Wanted By Sarah Gailey starts off strong with its main character, Esther, stowed away in a librarian’s book wagon. She’s a runaway in a future dystopian American southwest. Esther is running away from a marriage arranged by her father. The man she was set to marry, was originally going to marry her best friend, and secret love, Beatriz. Beatriz had been found with resistance propaganda, otherwise known as “unapproved materials”, and summarily executed. The old West is back again, but this time with even more small-town tyranny aided by an oppressive military focused on keeping order and restoring “traditional family values.” All the while, a group of upstanding women of reputation, the Librarians, distributes resistance literature under the guise of providing “traditional” education town to town in their roving wagons.
There is something special contained within Upright Women Wanted, but it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Gailey has certainly built an immersive world, filled with details that make it feel alive. The casual way stereotypical western movie-speak has infiltrated daily conversation is fun and feels very natural. Gailey leaves no stone unturned as they litter the novella with descriptions that feel old-timey, but with a modern sense of vigor. Every bit of the world-building feels purposeful, and while I wanted more, I can understand the decision to keep some aspects of the world vague. For instance, how this future came to be doesn’t really feel as important as in other dystopias, which felt refreshing. Overall it feels more tangible, as if it just sort of happened while no one was looking, because the oppressive aspects of that culture exist today.
The characters are a big selling point to me beyond the western trappings. They leap off the page with a dynamism and loudness I was not expecting in a novella. The people that Esther encounters fully understand the world that they live in, and have chosen a life that allows them to skirt the edges. They have to, as they are all queer, unable to live the life they want, for otherwise they’d be hanged by the society that requires heterosexuality. Gailey is not subtle about this either, and it’s bracing. I loved learning about their struggles, but I really loved how they have not succumbed to their fears and taken the fight head-on. There is a lushness to their lives that stands in stark contrast to the open and empty desert around them. Cye, a librarian in training, in particular stands out as they have to lead a dual life since they are non-binary. They consistently remind Esther to refer to them as “she” within towns so as not to give them away. That it was something that their entire well being hinged upon struck me deeply.
While there is not a lot of time to get deep within the novella, Gailey has added a richness to a straight forward story. It both makes me want more of this world, and satisfied with the story already told. If Gailey never goes back to this world, Esther and Cye along with the other women on their journey have taught me there is always a way to fight for your future, whether it’s in plain view or in the cracks that appear in civilization.
Upright Women Wanted: 7.5/10