A Review of Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Words By Carolyn Janecek
Published February 4, 2020 by Tor
“Upright Women Wanted” is written on the Librarian recruitment poster. The State is searching for young ladies willing to traverse the desert on horseback, distributing government-approved materials throughout the neo-fascist United States. Esther Augustus wants to join them and become the “upright woman” she’s failed to be. She needs to scrub clean the memory of watching her best friend––her first love––hanged for deviance. Leaving her life behind is the only way she’ll never hurt anyone again. But when Esther is found as a stowaway on the Librarians’ wagon, she’s greeted by the barrel of a gun and the realization that these women aren’t who she imagined them to be.
On the road, Esther’s eyes are opened to a world beyond survival, a world in which queer women and nonbinary people not only exist, but also love one another and fight back against an oppressive regime. Sarah Gailey (they/them) lets us see that wonder through Esther’s eyes––to feel her hope and her hopelessness. Between gunfights on horseback, there are tender touches and lingering looks. The reality for queer folks in Upright Women Wanted echoes our own society: Librarian Apprentice Cye is “they” on the road and “she” in town to protect themself from violence. Bet and Leda can be more than a Librarian and her Assistant while on the open road. Esther realizes that maybe she and Beatriz could have had a life together after all.
Beyond the desert, we revisit the world that Esther is fleeing from––Gailey paints a full picture of this neo-fascist United States. The smallest details show what life looks like in the dystopian Southwest. Citizens salvage the twine binding of government pamphlets to use as thread. The pamphlets themselves get recollected or else people would use them to insulate their walls. Only the military industrial complex gets such resources and basic sanitation––even the largest cities have doctors rinsing their tools in liquor before an operation. This bleak world comes together seamlessly throughout the story. There wasn’t a moment where I felt like I had too much or too little information; instead, this compact novella kept an engaging pace that’s often difficult to get right in shorter speculative fiction.
However, there were points in the novella at which I questioned the emotional realness of Esther Augustus. I could not suspend my disbelief that Esther was able to move past Beatriz’s execution so quickly; her internalized self-loathing never truly held her back from her goals. Esther’s grief feels amorphous and distant––as if she had only left Beatriz behind, rather than running away from her lover’s public death. Fifty pages later, Esther is already smothering her infatuation with Cye. While Gailey does their best to establish how Esther has trained herself to be emotionally stoic in a society impoverished by war, I felt like even a hardened character would have cracks in her foundation after so much loss.
While Esther’s emotional arc has some weak points, her journey of self-acceptance and resilience gives the novella a satisfying, thematic ending. Upright Women Wanted presents a dystopia that feels urgent and real, built on the abuses of power and violence that exist in present day. But most importantly, Gailey gives us hope. For every person who believes they are alone in their fight, there is someone already fighting.