Times continue to be strange, and it can be difficult to read for pleasure right now. Many of us have entirely new responsibilities eating up the majority of our days during the closures. Others might find themselves at home more than usual with technically less of a busy schedule, but still frequently wondering where all that spare time went. Personally, I’ve had trouble slowing down to enjoy a good book, and I’ve heard similar comments from other readers as well. Times like these call for something short, sweet, action-packed, and unique.
Sarah Gailey’s “Upright Women Wanted” (2020, tor.com) fits the bill perfectly. Set in the not-too-distant future that looks much like the Wild West, this novella opens with Esther, the daughter of a government official, hiding away in the back of the Librarian’s wagon. Esther is escaping her hometown after her best friend and secret lover, Beatriz, is hanged for possession of Unapproved Materials. Under the belief that joining up with the seemingly pious book peddlers will redeem Esther, she is in for a shock when she discovers the truth – that the unassuming Librarians are actually a subversive group of queer bandits who are rebelling against fascist powers that be.
While short, “Upright Women Wanted” packs a punch. The sparse but brutal Arizona desert landscape is palpable, and while there is little time or space for Gailey to really build the story’s future world or describe the ins and outs of its oppressive regime, the western feel grounds the story in familiarity while offering the genre a refreshing and new twist. Esther is a sweet and likeable lead who struggles with being true to herself while doing what she believes is right, especially once her perspective takes a 180 when she meets people more like herself than she initially realizes.
Esther initially enjoys the State-provided Approved Materials that “made sure that everyone had the same information, the same stories and the same songs to share, the same videos to watch [that] united the entire country, reinforcing the values of the citizens,” but she wonders if there might be other stories that more closely reflect her own reality. Spending time with the nonconformist Librarians opens her eyes – Esther sees the importance of access to a wide variety of stories and experiences to show that there is so much more out there. After sharing her past with a fellow traveler and expressing her guilt and sadness for loving another woman, Esther’s companion questions, “You really believe all that? About how there’s only one end in sight for people like you? You only think that because you’ve never seen different.” By learning to question the limited information she’s allowed to access and the motivations of the corrupt world she lives in, Esther opens herself up to new experiences, new friendships, and new ways of thinking.
“Upright Women Wanted” presents a diverse cast of characters in a story that challenges norms while maintaining a fun and adventurous spirit. Though currently a standalone story, it feels like there is much for Gailey to expand upon and develop into a longer novel or a series.
You can check out “Upright Women Wanted” online as an ebook through denverlibrary.org as well as in print at your closest branch library once it reopens.
Hannah Evans is the senior librarian at the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library.