‘Upright’ Lets Characters be Themselves

A few months ago, I read and loved Anna North’s Outlawed so much that it made me give the side-eye to Sarah Gailey‘s Upright Women Wanted because the premises have so many similarities. Both feature fierce young women who chafe against the bleakly misogynistic Wild West backdrop to the degree that their lives are threatened. Both flee from bad marriages or engagements. Both find a community of other misfits, as well as ways to subvert the “natural order” of things. And Outlawed did those things so well I wasn’t sure if it would be fair to read Upright Women Wanted with that high of a bar to clear.

I am happy to report that Outlawed and Upright Women Wanted turned out to be like siblings that take wildly different paths, both achieving greatness without ever competing with the other.

Upright Women Wanted follows Esther, who has hidden in the wagon of the Librarians passing through her small Arizona town in hopes of escaping her unwanted engagement and the memories of her best friend’s execution. She is quickly discovered by Bet, a Librarian who immediately gets her boss and partner, Leda, to assess the situation. Bet agrees to let Esther come with them for a ways as long as Esther can prove useful. Bet also assigns another Librarian, Cye, to make sure Esther can keep her end of the bargain.

The Librarians bring “government-approved” reading materials from town to town, by which, of course, they mean they bring propaganda wherever they go. Esther’s friend (and first love), Beatriz, was killed not for being gay but for being found with subversive material from the resistance. (Important to note: this takes place in a post-apocalyptic or -cataclysmic version of the West in which unspecified events have led to fascism; a return to outdated gender roles, sexuality, and gender identity; and a reliance on horses for transportation. It almost feels like it could belong in the same universe as Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series.) Esther quickly finds out that maybe the Librarians aren’t totally different from Bev in more ways than one.

The future was supposed to be space travel and hoverboards, not horses defying gravity.

Upright Women Wanted reads fast—it is only a novella, after all—so we don’t get to delve as deeply into as many things as I would have liked. Still, Sarah Gailey manages to make the world still feel expansive, even if we only have a tiny sliver of it in front of us. I think the length is why there was never any question that the Librarians were agents of the resistance, and how Esther seems awfully thick for being so surprised when she finally figures it out. The ending is such that I do hope for a sequel, though, as we got with Gailey’s superb American Hippo series of novellas.

If you look past the dust clouds and galloping horses, Upright Women Wanted is a story about accepting, and embracing, identity. Esther is gay, a fact we know from page one, and because of the conditions of her world believes fervently there is something fundamentally wrong with her because of that. She tells Leda and Bet she wants to join the Librarians because she wants to become better—she wants to conquer this broken part of herself. Leda and Bet’s clear and strong relationship serves as a model showing Esther there can be a future for her just as she is, if she’s careful to keep hidden from the wrong eyes.

The idea of being one’s true self in safe circles versus in the dangerous eyes of the public is reiterated frequently and strongly with Cye’s whole character, who is nonbinary and gives Esther very clear rules about which pronouns to use on the trail and which to use in town. This theme is so obvious in how it is used and reused and reflected that author Sarah Gailey could almost be accused of being too blatant with it if the characters’ individual plights weren’t all serving to make the gang a somewhat more subtle metaphor for queer communities. Every part of the story is so delightful, too, that a little heavy-handedness can be forgiven.

And I don’t think Gailey, who is queer and nonbinary, is trying to be subtle. The world has fallen to pieces and the reinvigorated and thoroughly bigoted patriarchy is only trying to smash it up even more. The resistance lies, as far as we see, entirely in the hands of the disenfranchised, the queer, the gender-nonconforming—those who are rejected by the status quo and therefore can see with more clarity the damage that it is doing. I’m not sure if Gailey wrote Upright Women Wanted with the intent of placing a moderately far-off future in which Trumpism has nearly ruined every good thing, but they draw on tangible fears of what progress that has been gained suddenly being snatched away. Of hard-won victories in identity acceptance being quashed. And seeing how a taste of what readers might take for granted blows Esther’s mind gives a lot of empathy for a facet of the queer experience—being convinced that you are broken and that nothing the world offers will make you whole, only to find a space where you are welcomed and validated and given the chance to thrive—that many readers might not have experienced or considered.

Or maybe the bulk of readers drawn to Upright Women Wanted will know that feeling all too well and will find a sense of that welcoming and validation within its pages. This town is more than big enough for two tales of finding a place among the red rock and sage that breaks away from every wicked thing to make something better than it seemed could ever be possible.

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