Published: 4th February 2020
Format: Hardback (purchased)
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.
Woah … where to start.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a futurist, pulp-western, with bad-ass, queer-identifying librarians novella. It’s a wild ride.
How to like the person who she was instead of fighting it.
To be honest, I can’t recall ever having read a true pulp-western novel before. So I was relying on the movies I’d seen to familiarise myself with the general style of the western aspects of the novella. I was intrigued by the futuristic dystopian aspects, and so looking forward to reading about some bad-ass, outlaw, queer librarians. The cover was quirky, the premise was fun and the hardback with its deckled pages were beautiful. I dived right in with high expectations.
As it turns out, I think my expectations might have been a bit too high for this one.
Don’t get me wrong Upright Women Wanted, has some amazing moments of pure gold commentary, that leaves you both awed and hits you right in the chest.
When there’s people around that we don’t trust, we let them think we’re the kinds of people who are allowed to exist. And the only kind of Librarian that’s allowed to exist is one who answers to ‘she’.
Set during a war-torn not-so-distant future, where all the money has gone to fighting wars and left the world in a state of disrepair, the Librarians travelled the country in their wagons delivering approved reading material to each outpost.
Or so that’s what the general public presume they do.
After watching her best friend, and sometimes lover, be executed for having ‘unapproved reading materials’ on her person, Esther knows she needs to leave town before she faces a similar future. As fate would have it, the Librarians are leaving town, and Esther tows away in their wagons hoping that the moral upstanding Librarians can ‘fix’ her.
‘You think you don’t get anything good, because you feel the wrong way about the wrong people’.
Naive, sheltered, and somewhat small-minded, Esther quickly learns that she has no idea about the world around her or the true identity and purpose of the Librarians. Nor does she understand that there are other ways to be.
“Everywhere,” Esther whispered to herself. “There are people like us everywhere.”
I really enjoyed the Queer representation in this short, action-packed novella. There are a number of sapphic romances represented, as well as polyamorous partners, non-binary characters and allusions to other queer identities.
Through non-binary characters like Cye, lesbian characters like Bet and Leda, and polyamorous lovers like Genevieve and Tracy, Esther’s naivety gives the reader a safe place to learn about other sexualities and identifies. To ask questions, make comments, and leave behind preconceived notions and expectations of what makes a person. It’s a safe space to learn about the use of ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’, when the misuse of a pronoun can inexplicitly hurt the individual your talking to. It’s about eliminating the harm caused by careless words within the queer and larger community, and growing awareness for some of these common mistakes.
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.
However, I wish the story had been extended beyond the scope of a novella, as so much of the action happens in a matter of pages, leaving the story falling short in execution for me personally. I would have preferred for Gailey to have extended the story into a slightly longer tale, where the characters and situations are perhaps more developed and explored. As it is, you read a lot of what is happening between the lines of the dialogue, as Esther’s naivety shrowds a lot of the novel.
While I enjoyed Upright Women Wanted, the narrative itself isn’t exactly memorable. I read this on the first day of the Queer Lit Readathon (round five was held 31st May – 6th June), and its already hard to summarise and remember. However, the feelings, thoughts and emotions relating to gender and sexuality have stayed with me quite strongly.
Upright Women Wanted is a story of self-discovery and self-exploration. It’s about what it means to be a person, and who and how you let those around you shape, or taint, your own expectations and perspectives of yourself. It’s short, punchy, and rolling read.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a quote from the authors note, to inspire YOU to pick up this book:
I owe this book […] to every queer person out there who thinks they don’t have a future, who thinks there’s no place for them in this world, who thinks that all is lost if they can’t find a way to bury the person who they are:
This is for you. This is for all of you. There’s a place for you in the future, and its better than you can possibly imagine.
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