Sarah Gailey gets to have all the fun of writing a Western while avoiding all the cultural baggage of writing one in the twenty-first century by moving the story into a dystopian future in which the United States has broken down enough that towns are isolated and most travel is by horse or by foot, but not broken down so much that there aren’t ample guns, bullets and powder for the characters to use in a scrape. Gailey has made the remaining polity something of a ramshackle Gilead, with patriotism and patriarchy enforced by vigorous application of hanging, alongside less formal means of keeping some men in power and nearly all women oppressed.
There’s resistance, of course, because the setting and story would be a lot less fun if the dystopia were run like a real one in which the opposition is just ground down through the relentless actions of people with power. With noticeable irony, Gailey sets up Utah as the center of the opposition. That only comes out further into Upright Women Wanted because it begins in the middle of nowhere with a young woman desperate to escape her home town so she stows away on a traveling wagon.
In the first pages of Upright Women Wanted Esther’s girlfriend is hanged for deviance while her father, the boss of Valor, Arizona, makes a pious speech. Esther runs away to join the Librarians, travelers who journey from settlement to poor settlement bringing Approved Materials to the populace and conducting small trade on the side. They Librarians play an important role in knitting communities together, and they are well regarded by both the people and the authorities. Their recruiting slogan provides the novella’s title. Esther sees them as a way out, an escape from the harrowing events she has just been a part of, and the arranged marriage that awaits her in the near future.
The Head Librarian didn’t find Esther Augustus until they were two whole days outside of Valor, Arizona. She swore so loud and colorful that it snapped Esther right out of the Beatriz-dream she’d been having, and by the time Esther was sitting upright, the Head Librarian’s revolver was pointed right at her face.
“Don’t shoot me,” Esther said, her voice raspy. Her mouth tasted foul from two days with only the bottle of water she’d brought, two days without a toothbrush and without food. “Please,” she added, because her mother had raised her right and because manners seemed like a good idea when a gun was involved. (Ch. 1)
Of course the Head Librarian, Elizabeth by name, does not shoot Esther or it would be a very short novella. The Librarian pries Esther’s full story out of her, and it emerges that Beatriz was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials, not for having the mayor’s daughter as a girlfriend, though it is implied that would have been grounds, too. Gailey gives enough of Esther’s interior monologue to show how she is struggling with same-sex attraction and thinks that part of her has to be extirpated.
“You wanted to come and join the Librarians, because we’re chaste, and morally upright, and we’re loyal to the State no matter what. And because we don’t give in to deviant urges. You wanted to come and join us because you want to learn how to be like us. Do I have that right?
Esther nodded, gasping. “Yes,” she said. “Please. Please teach me how to be like you.” (Ch. 1)
The three Librarians — Elizabeth, Leda and Cye — do indeed teach Esther to be like them, but the truth is that they are a hotbed of subversion and what the State would call deviant urges are pretty much all they have. Elizabeth and Leda are a couple of long standing, and Cye is non-binary with an eye for Esther, feelings she soon returns. (I agree with Doreen in finding it strange and icky that Esther starts falling for someone just days after her first love swung from a hangman’s noose before her eyes.) Cye’s pronouns are a big deal to them — maybe even worth shooting someone over, certainly worth a scrap — but I found it more like an insertion of contemporary issues into a post-collapse setting. It struck me as something like a twenty-first century analog of Asimov being able to imagine robots being able to do a man’s job but not being able to imagine a woman doing it.
Anyway, the story is good fun. There are bandits to chase off, contraband to smuggle, natural hazards to watch out for, and a real loose cannon introduced about halfway through. The four women handle everything with aplomb, gradually introducing Esther into the ways of the Librarians. She grows from a sheltered small-town person into someone more self-confident, more secure in her desires and her abilities. In the novella’s closing scenes, she’s tested to the limits of her abilities. Upright Women Wanted is a Western without Indigenous people to raise thorny questions. It’s a women’s story, with the men either opponents or supporting characters who barely register. It’s a coming-of-age story that centers same-sex romance and has a major non-binary character. It’s lots of things that old-fashioned Westerns, as far as I know, generally were not. What it shares with the good ones is that it’s a hoot.
Doreen’s review of Upright Women Wanted is here.
Hunh, I read Cye’s insistence on their pronouns being “they” on the road and “she” among strangers to be more of a “don’t call me that in town else I’ll get killed” thing rather than a “contemporary” thing. But their communications skills were uniformly poor throughout, so I can understand why that doesn’t come through.
I wish I liked the novella as much as you did tho. There was just too much stupid plot contrivance going on for me.
I may have phrased that badly, because I also got that being “they” among strangers could be fatal to Cye. But the whole involved discussion in a post-collapse setting that’s supposed to be at least a couple of lifetimes deep felt odd to me. A bit like having characters in a story set in the 2070s getting exercised about “Ms” vs “Miss.” Or, I dunno, what’s something that got early Victorians really worked up?
I thought a lot about what you said about Amity, and agree that she was totally reckless in a way that could not only have gotten the party killed but could have badly hurt the whole resistance. On the other hand, I can see a revolutionary assassin being someone who does not play well with others. When Stalin was a bank robber, he spilled a good bit more blood than Lenin was really keen to have happen. Didn’t stop Lenin from using the money, though. My suspension of disbelief for Amity wobbled for other reasons, like her sudden changes of heart.
I was probably kinder to the novella when writing about it than when reading it. At the most basic level, Gailey wants to play with the furniture of Westerns without considering Native people even a little bit. Is that ok? I’m not at all sure. On the one hand, I have written elsewhere that not every Poland-in-WWII story has to be a Holocaust story. So maybe this is just a story of horses and shootouts in the American west, and Native peoples don’t have to be considered. But that does feel weird to me. Also, the State has to be pretty stupid not to see what’s going on with the Librarians and the resistance. There’s a lot of blundering stupidity to go around in most totalitarianisms, but not usually that kind. And the Librarians are pretty confident nobody’s a double agent; that seemed unlikely to me too. I tried not to think too hard about the set-up of the system because I suspect it would fall over without too much prodding. Gailey wants a post-collapse Western, so I just rolled with it because they’re not out to write a serious treatise.
All very good points! I didn’t mind Amity as bloodthirsty, but there’s a difference between brazen and “I’m not only suicidal, I’m going to take the entire cause down with me” stupidity because the author can’t think of a better plot twist, like the double agent thing you mention. I’m hoping this doesn’t represent the best of Mx Gailey’s oeuvre, as I still really want to read the hippo book, which has been languishing in my Kindle for years at this point.