In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.
“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”
Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.
The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.
When Esther Augustus witnesses the public hanging of her lover, Beatriz, for “deviance” and “the possession of unapproved materials”, the fire in her is smothered, and something else inside her stumbles to the edge of a precipice, falls off. Esther wonders, not for the first time, what reason it is to cling so stubbornly to her defiance when the current is pulling so hard in the other direction. Esther then decides to run away to join the Librarians in the hope that the company of such “chaste, morally upright women” would rid her of the wrongness inside her.
But Esther soon discovers how absurdly, ridiculously naïve she has been. Her mind had been empty of understanding of the world, but in the company of queer gunslinger librarians who rejected the choices, the limits the world gave them and who looked at the laws and rules as though they were sticks of chewing gum that had long lost their taste and needed to be spat out—it begins to fill in, layer by layer.
The fire in Esther wasn’t smothered after all, only banked, and it would burn.
Keep fighting. It will be hard, and it will be awful, and it will be worth it. Don’t give up, even when it feels like dying. Don’t give up. This is only the beginning.
“Upright Women Wanted” takes place somewhere vaguely in the realm of the near-future, in a fictional America that deteriorated into the Old West. To live in this world of poverty, toil and human terror was to spare only enough attention for your fellow man to hate him for a few precious seconds before you got back to ignoring him. Revolutions ignited like a chain of firecrackers, all this instability was like blood in the water, and the craftily rendered characters of Gailey’s novel swam in it.
The plot is simple, but sturdily so. And for such a short book, it’s packed with characters who step wholly into the page page, and doggedly follow you off of it once the story is over.
Watching Esther’s character development was like watching a new lamb struggle to their feet. With her father’s authority weighing on her like a pillow on the face her whole life, Esther had believed that girls like her do not fling themselves against the crushing weight of fate. It was hope that had Beatriz always so far ahead of her, but Esther had parted company with hope long ago. But as Esther spends the pages’ precipitous drop into darkness alongside Bet and Leda, the Librarians whose wagon she sneaked into and who were a lesbian couple, and Cye who prefers to go by the pronoun they and whom Esther is developing a crush on, she begins to feel herself bigger and brighter in their reflections of her. These people, as familiar to her as her own palm, had built her a bridge to a possible future. And Esther just had to cross it.
“Everywhere,” Esther whispered to herself. “There are people like us everywhere.”
Upright Women Wanted” tugged on some mysterious thread inside me, and reading it felt like reaching toward your reflection in a mirror and finding warm flesh under your fingertips—that magical, fearful symmetry. It is a unique, hearty, thought-provoking romp that for all its luxuriating in the gritty, hardscrabble texture of the Old West is bracingly progressive. Fascism, patriarchy, queerphobia are incisively observed, and in every wind-blown crag and hard-edged crevice of this story, people find ways to live and survive or die on their own terms.
This is ultimately a novel that is keenly attuned to the deeper music in the speeches and hand-painted signs of protest. It’s a celebration of the people who scurry along the margins of the world, looking for ways out, unwilling to slice at themselves from different angles, jigsawing the pieces however they can, caulking in the odd bits, to fit themselves into the narrow confines of conventional society.
If there is a flaw to be found is that, while the novel wraps up just enough plot threads to make the book feel like a complete story, I had wanted just a little bit more from its conclusion, and I was left craving an unnameable something that felt missing from the short novella. But I think that owes more to my reluctance to let it go, and my desire to stay a little bit longer in this world.
That said, a much-needed, powerful and thoughtful overhaul of the age-old Western tale, “Upright Women Wanted” belongs on every shelf.