Archive for February 5, 2020

Warning: mild spoilers

Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a novella about librarian spies in a weird west setting, begins with the protagonist, Esther, stowing away in the back of a wagon to avoid an arranged marriage. Discovered after two days of hiding by Bet and Leda – Librarians whose job it is to deliver Approved Materials to remote settlements – Esther shakily reveals her predicament: she’s a woman who isn’t attracted to men, and her domineering lawman father just hanged her best friend and lover, Beatriz, after finding her with seditious Unapproved Materials. Together with Cye, their Apprentice Librarian, Bet and Leda take unexpected pity on Esther and agree to bring her to Utah, where they’re set to deliver a mysterious package. But life with the Librarians is more complicated than it first seems, and Esther is soon caught up in a dangerous adventure which, at every step, challenges not only what she thought she knew about the world, but about herself.

Written in a style that succeeds in being simultaneously whip-smart, pacey and heartfelt, Upright Women Wanted is a story about queer self-acceptance: about what it means to grow up believing that your orientation has doomed you to evil, unhappiness and a bad ending, and to shrink yourself to fit that narrative, only to discover – painfully, brutally, beautifully – that it isn’t true and never was; that you have only ever been as small as other people forced you to be. It is also a story about fascism – not in the past, as one might first expect from the western setting, but in the future. Though Gailey’s far-ranging horseback Librarians are reminiscent of the Pack Horse Library Project, which saw female riders delivering books to remote Appalachian communities in the thirties and forties, Upright Women Wanted is gradually revealed to take place in an era with drones and videos, but where diesel rationing has rendered cars a thing of the past. The United States is divided into quadrants; there is always War, and what little fuel exists is given as a priority to the tanks that fight in the beleaguered Central Corridor.

Viewed in this light, the authoritarian insistence on Approved Materials – and the lessons these stories have taught Esther about herself, about people like her – becomes even more sinister. Like the infamous Hays Code, which determined (among other things) that homosexuality could only be depicted on screen if it was made clear to the audience that it was morally wrong and its practitioners destined either for tragedy or villainy, the Approved Materials exist to indoctrinate under the guise of spreading unity. Esther knows about people like Cye, who goes by they instead of he or she (unless they’re in town, for reasons of personal safety), but only from stories that paint them in the same bad light as women like her. This leaves the audience free to fill in the blanks about what might’ve happened to lead society in such a terrifying backwards circle; blanks which, at the present historical moment, are frighteningly easy to envisage.

In its deliberate evocation of a past era recreated in new shades of misogyny and fascism, Upright Women Wanted is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s Fade to White, where a post-nuclear, Macarthyist USA puts a smiling, fifties spin on matchmaking fertile youngesters, and where teenage Sylvie has to hide her Japanese heritage in a white nationalist state. Both stories highlight the terror of difference, and the frightening ease with which propaganda shapes culture, society and self-perception. Fade to White is the bleaker story, ending on a note of poignant despair – and to deliberate, chilling effect. But while Upright Women Wanted doesn’t go full Star Wars, the rebels triumphant and the evil empire defeated, it nonetheless lands us in a place of powerful hope, with Esther aware of her strengths and determined to fight for herself and others.

Given its status as novella rather than novel, there are details about the wider setting of Upright Women Wanted – about its history, culture and characters – that go unexplained, or which an eager reader could be forgiven for wondering about, but these omissions are never due to bad writing or inconsistencies. Rather, it’s that the story is a greyhound, sleekly muscled and pointed straight down a set track: the core and soul of things is Esther’s journey, both literally and thematically, establishing her as a microcosm reflective of a greater whole. Even so, there is plenty of room left for further stories set in this universe, and I for one would be very happy to read them. Upright Women Wanted is a queer heartpunch, reminding us of the ways in which simply existing happily, without shame or abnegation, is a rebellion all its own. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Plus and also: queer librarian spies. I’m not made of stone!