Gailey’s ability to highlight the smallest ways women are restricted by patriarchal norms is deeply affecting.
Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted begins with a public hanging. The criminal is a woman named Beatrix and her crime is unspecified deviance. The moment is recognizably a Western in tenor and prose with a hint of a Salem witch trial as a great man, Victor Augustus makes a speech to his town about the dangers of a woman like the one hanging. But he is really speaking to one person, his daughter Esther, Beatrix’s lover. This display is meant to warn Esther of the consequences of straying from the heteronormative path, especially for a woman of her station. She understands this and flees with her father’s voice and Beatrix’s ghost whispering in her head, embarking on a journey of self-acceptance through harsh terrain that strips away all artifice. But Esther doesn’t do this alone. She stows away with the only people she thinks can help her: The Librarians.
The Librarians are a government agency that provide the towns in the territory with approved entertainment materials. Women comprise their ranks, and their reputation is one of isolation and devotion to their calling. Esther is drawn to the legend of these women and sees a potential life for herself in this wandering nunnery where the big sky and frontier living will take away all her desire for other women. She will live by the credo the Librarians have etched on their badges: virtue, knowledge and patriotism. But, like so much in this book, the Librarians are not what they seem.
A slim book, this is a science fiction novel, and Gailey subtly reveals the nature of this new frontier that Esther travels once she is discovered in the back of one of the Librarian’s carts. The books, pamphlets and movies the Librarians deliver are remnants from the old world as well as propaganda for the current power structure. Librarians travel by horse and wagon because fossil fuels are scarce and reserved for the war effort, but like 1984 it’s hard to tell whether said wars really exist or are just a means for the state to consolidate power. Whatever was the United States has reverted into different territories, the fate of the world beyond these shores a mystery, but the Librarians seem to have permission to travel it all so that the population can be distracted and entertained. But that mission makes them the perfect underground railroad for lesbians, gender nonconformists and revolutionaries looking for safe passage, so instead of trying to escape her nature Esther gets a chance at freedom.
It is important to state that while Gailey tackles issues of identity, oppression and repression by creating a new West where conversion therapy comes at the end of a rope, this is a rollicking adventure story full of heroism, shootouts and romance. Gailey exhibits a great talent for slow burns and big reveals, but she does it all without leaving Esther’s side. Esther proves the best of protagonists, discovering transferable talents and unexpected fortitude as she transitions to life with the Librarians. It’s a hard life, but not without its pleasures, and the simmering sexual tension between Esther and Apprentice Librarian Cye is so intense and charming that you cannot help but root for them to kiss before bandits, the desert or some other danger takes them.
Gailey’s talent is prodigious and their ability to highlight the smallest ways women are restricted by patriarchal norms is deeply affecting. In fact, Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks kept coming to mind as a kind of spiritual prologue to this book. In Zumas’ near future, a Constitutional amendment has banned abortion, and though a momentous event, it was achieved almost quietly with the right conservatives and fanatics appropriately placed at levers of power. The world of Upright Women Wanted feels like that America taken to its natural conclusion, oppressive, depleted and holding onto its cruelty because that’s the only resource left. They are wildly different stories, but each serve to remind all us husbands and allies of our privilege when we think we fathom the pernicious indignities of womanhood and second class citizenship. Gailey leaves us reconsidering the social construction of gender and identity as it serves patriarchal systems and what the freedom truly means, but they will also make you yearn for a long series of novels about the adventures Esther, Cye and their fellow Librarians, the lives they save and the perceptions they change. Achieving both these objectives at once is a tremendous literary feat.