I really loved the concept (and title!) of Upright Women Wanted. It’s an LGBT Western set in a future post-apocalyptic and extremely oppressive and patriarchal version of America. Society seems to have regressed to a pioneer era level, complete with horses, shotguns and public hangings. Women are completely subservient to men and any kind of disobedience to the State (including homosexuality) is punishable by death. Access to books and other media are strictly controlled through The Librarians, a team of women running a mobile library. Esther, the protagonist, stows away in one of their wagons at the beginning of the novel, thus embarking on a new and exciting career.
I loved the worldbuilding. The State maintains control of the populace through aggressive propaganda promoting blind devotion of it and its endless war, law enforcement thugs and brutal penalties for disobedience and chronic brainwashing through State controlled media. Sounds familiar, right? Gailey also hints at how a culture of toxic masculinity props up the system, since encouraging certain types of men to be bullies and police the behavior of others “makes them feel important.” What Gailey doesn’t reveal is almost as interesting as what she does. Like, what happened to all the world’s resources? How did society get to this point? Who are they fighting in this War? Does it matter? Is the War even real? The South-West is a desert and it’s implied there’s been some kind of environmental cataclysm, but does that extend across the whole country? The whole world? Certain states, like Arizona, are mentioned by name, so clearly still exist, as do breakaway rebel states, but there’s also a resource-rich ‘Central Corridor’ where the government and army seem to be based, like a Western version of The Capitol. Where exactly is it?
And, of course, The Librarians Esther meets are secretly Resistance and LGBT+ themselves. There’s even a non-binary Assistant Librarian (correct pronouns throughout).
I have to say, I LOVED the image of badass, gun-slinging women roaming the world distributing books and helping to topple a fascist government. It’s beautiful. (Though I wonder why The Librarians are specifically women? It seems to be one of the only jobs permitted to women, which seems strange in such a misogynistic culture, given it’s such an important job. Perhaps it was supposed to encourage women to buy into the system too? A sequel might clear that up.) They’re a bastion of hope for poor Esther, who’s spent her whole life trying to repress her sexuality. Esther is also running away from an unwanted marriage and grieving for her secret girlfriend, Beatriz, who has recently been hanged for possession of Unauthorized Materials. So she’s working through a lot.
I loved Esther. She spunky and brave but reflexively submissive, thanks to the upbringing she’s suffered through. It’s a delight to see her be embraced by a family of people who’ve been through similar experiences and let her be herself. It’s also great to see Esther start to recognize her internalized homophobia and negative self-image and trying to build a new identity. The message is very clear: there is hope out there for LGBT readers who’ve struggled with conservative or homophobic childhoods or communities. Gailey even reiterates it in her Author’s Note and dedications.
I’ve got to say, I also loved Gailey’s writing, which is peppered with Western-y nuggets of goodness, like: “… crumpled and dirty and as beat-up as a cheating gambler.” Love it!
My only issue was with the romance Esther starts to kindle with Cye, the Assistant Librarian. Not an objection to the romance itself, mind you. Cye takes Esther under their wing (in a grumpy way) and their dynamic is cute. It just seemed a little rushed. Especially as Esther keeps alluding to the loss of Beatriz, her first girlfriend, best friend and long-term love interest. Actually, “rushed” applies to the whole book. For me, it was too short and seemed to finish a little abruptly. There’s not much of a plot either, beyond the group trying to get to a safe zone and Esther deciding she wants to join The Librarians for real.
To be fair, as the first book in what will hopefully be a series, it has to establish its world and the stakes in it. So I seriously hope there will be a sequel that’ll expand on the characters and story we’ve seen so far. I really do like the Resistance Librarian concept, and I’m curious about what happened to the world for it to have gotten to this point, both environmentally (the desert wasteland aspect) and socially. There must be lots more to discover about the State and the Resistance and how it all ticks.
It’s certainly topical, what with the ongoing environmental crisis and rise of right-wing politics across the world.
So fingers crossed for a sequel!
Alternative Title: The Quick and the Read
Those eyes were canaries, Esther realized – they sang everything that passed through Leda’s head, loud and clear enough for anyone to catch.