Book review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Coming to grips with you really are is a massive rite of passage for most people. (Not everyone; some people choose to remain blissfully unaware of their true selves or repress if they can’t stand the uncomfortable truth of it all.)

This is a particular challenge for members of the queer community who, like other groups who don’t fit neatly into society’s very limited idea of nice and normal, struggle to deal with the fact that who they are is not what is socially acceptable.

Granted this situation has improved in recent decades, but while the new relatively widespread acceptance of LGBTQI people – disclaimer: I am a gay man so I know of which I speak – is an immensely welcome one, it can all too easily be reversed.

Case in point is the post-war dystopian world depicted in Sarah Gailey’s vividly-memorable novella Upright Women Wanted in which the USA is an authoritarian state divided into mostly all-new geographic regions with more than a hint of The Handmaid’s Tale intolerance about it.

In this blighted land, where cars and planes still exist but are the preserve of the military and the well-funded and roads have all but broken down into gravel and dirt, society has also taken a giant leap backwards, treating people like the protagonist Esther, a runaway from a violent father and an oppressively small-minded town in Arizona, as outcasts simply because of their sexuality.

“There were people who were happy with themselves. They liked themselves, not in spite of who they were but because of who they were. It didn’t make sense, not hardly. That kind of joy shouldn’t have been an option for women like these ones. It was as lush as a table laid to creaking with ripe fruit and crackle-skinned meat and whole-fat butter. It was a temptation. It was a promise. It was impossible.

She wanted that satisfaction. She wanted it for herself, like a half-starved alley-rat watching that table through a window on a bellyaching night. She didn’t know how to get it—but she had a feeling that if she stuck with the Librarians for long enough, she might be able to figure it out. How to feast instead of starving.

How to like the person who she was instead of fighting it.” (P. 54)

Well, they would if Esther was brave enough to come out but understandably she is reluctant to take what could be a fatal step, all too aware of the potential wolves at her door, an aversion bred of years of propaganda, an abusive father and a society based on hatred of the other.

And yet, while people have taken a giant step backwards to a more Wild West mid-nineteenth century way of life, with all its attendant challenges and privations, there are those who in their own quiet way are working against what often feels like an omnipresent system that brooks no deviation or defiance.

Interestingly the ones who are bringing this seditious change are not the people you might expect but then that’s often the case when opposition begins to brew – it’s the people who are hiding in plain sight who are often able to be the most effective.

Of course when she decides to escape her hometown and hides away in a wagon belonging to the Librarians, women who travel town-to-town in the new fascist American Southwest ostensibly dispersing the Orwellian-named “Approved Materials”, Esther has no idea that she will become a part of this world nor that everything she thought about the society she is a part of or about herself will be challenged to the very core.

Sarah Gailey (image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

Starting with, of course, who she is at her very heart.

Fleeing the loss of her best friend with whom was in love and who has just been executed for the possession of seditious materials, and her father’s power-hungry brutality, Esther is caught in a fevered whirl of emotional conflict, one that dared not speak its emotional truth, not simply because of the dystopian-birthed homophobia now running rampant is a society also now steeped in misogyny and archaic gender roles, but a lifetime spent in a home where dissent was punishable by constant beating.

Esther is, like many people who grew up in oppressive environments where free thought and a trust in your ability was not encouraged, unwilling to raise her voice and strike out on her own lest she attract the opprobrium of which she has had far too much experience.

But as she encounters one life-changing moment after another, she is pushed again and again, and by one particular new companion in particular to listen to have confidence in who she is and what is capable of and to act on that surety.

Gailey does a brilliant job of evoking what it is like to people to seek out and find freedom, whether that is on a personal level or a societal level, evoking the initial timidity and lack of certainty and then its metamorphosis into boldness and a whole new liberating sense of self.

While the focus is a queer one in many ways, the lessons contained in Upright Women Wanted, which beats with the vivacity of the lived experience of someone who has undergone this journey and is all the richer for it, are universal applicable to anyone who has found their voice silenced and their sense of self muddied almost to almost oblivion and who wants to reclaim that which they have lost.

“Amity nodded. ‘And what do you think that Board wants you to believe about yourself?’ She paused, but it wasn’t the kind of pause that wants an answer. ‘You might not have a happy ending coming to you, Hopalong. But if you come to a bad end, it won’t be on account of what kind of person you fall for. I’ve seen a lot more of the world than you have, and I can tell you upright: I’ve seen as many good ends as bad ones for your kind of heart.'” (P. 90)

Upright Women Wanted is an impressive achievement, deftly and often movingly combining a riveting narrative, strikingly realised characters and a thematic sensibility that has a point to make but which never at any point feels heavyhanded or overdone.

It is also possessed of a very strong, compelling sense of the world it inhabits and of the people who live in it and the ideals, perverted or otherwise, that drive them, quietly challenging them but in the overall way that anyone with a shred of humanity would stand up against small-thinking, bigotry and oppression.

Most importantly it tells its beguiling, affecting story from a very personal standpoint, one where Gailey gives us the chance to really get to know Esther and thus how important her journey becomes to her.

She sets with no clear concept of what she wants or of who she is, only that needs to get away; but as she comes to know the Librarians, Bet and Leda and their apprentice Cye, with whom she becomes quite close, she is awakened to a world of possibilities, a revelation for someone whose world has, for so long, been so circumscribed.

Reading the evocative short and sweet beauty that is Upright Women Wanted you are struck again and again by the fact that the small-minded among us might be comfortable with an astonishingly small “l” life, and at ease with enforcing their myopic fascistic intent on others, but that the human spirit is irresistibly mighty and not to denied and that if you are open to its insistent entreaty, you will win out in ways too marvellous to even imagine when first you open the door to the “what-ifs” of the world.

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