Upright Women Wanted (which my brain keeps reading as Uppity Women Wanted), is short but packs a powerful punch. This book about librarians leading the resistance in a war-torn dystopic American southwest may not be for everyone, but if the line, “Are you a coward, or are you a Librarian?” makes your heart sing then you should definitely check this out.
Esther lives in Arizona, during a time similar to the Old West but with a fascist governmental system. Librarians work for the government, riding horseback from town to town distributing reading materials. People are only allowed to read materials on the Approved List, and all resources are devoted to The War:
The country was at war, seemed always to have been at war, and there wasn’t a soul in Valor who hadn’t lost a loved one, who hadn’t gone hungry on reduced rations so the troops could eat. There wasn’t a soul in the entire country, as far as Esther could figure, who hadn’t at some point eaten an onion for dinner when the meat ran out. Who hadn’t fed their babies watery formula, who hadn’t learned to make shoes out of worn-down tire rubber.
Who hadn’t watched a neighbor hang for “crimes against the state”-an accusation that could mean anything from ration-sharing to assassination to possession of the wrong pamphlet.
When a group of Librarians comes to Esther’s town, Esther runs away from home and hides in the Librarians’ wagon, hoping that by the time she’s discovered, she’ll be able to convince the Librarians to take her with them. Esther hopes that by joining the Librarians, whom she assumes are the pinnacle of goodness, she’ll be able to cure herself of all her “bad” tendencies – especially her attraction to other women, which is forbidden by law. Upon hearing her story, Bet and Leda, the Librarians, hold each other’s hands and say, “Well, I’ve got good news for you, and I’ve got bad news.”
The rest of the book is centered around Esther trying to make a place for herself among the Librarians, who have a secret mission, as they journey towards Utah. The sense of place is spot on – gritty, dry, hot, and smelly. Anyone who’s been in the area will recognize the terrain immediately. It’s the kind of place where a person can find freedom, but it’s also the kind of place where, if you want a body to disappear, you cut it open so that scavengers can find and eat it that much more quickly.
I enjoyed the fact that the details of life on the road and the chaos of combat are both described with an abundance of detail and attention to the five senses. One of the few times that Esther gets the group’s attention and respect is when she suggests ways to make their stew more palatable. The joy of being able to light a fire with a bag of wood chips instead of searching for other kindling feels like Christmas Day. Meanwhile combat is confusing, messy, loud, and just generally miserable in what seems to be a realistic manner.
Naturally I was also entranced with the idea of Librarians acting as feminist, Queer, anti-fascist rebels (it’s a big reveal to Esther, but revealed to the reader on the book’s back cover). The Librarians roaming the Old West is a great image. The idea of Librarians as opponents of fascism has played out in real life (see responses of librarians to The Patriot Act) and it’s quite satisfying to see it play out in an action-packed manner.
The group she’s taken refuge with includes Bet (described as “brown”), Leda, and Cye. Bet and Leda are a couple. Cye, the Apprentice Librarian, uses They/Them pronouns. Eventually they pick up a triad of three women, of whom the most prominent member plot-wise is a black woman named Amity. As Esther watches these characters and others interact romantically with each other, she loses her sense of self-loathing and begins to picture a different future for herself:
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.
As far as feminist LGBTQIA representation goes, this book is amazing. Amity, Bet, Leda, and Cye live their lives without shame and with the possibility of happy endings despite a brutal society that wants them dead. Esther’s personal growth is hardwon and delightful. The concept of, as the back cover puts it, “queer Librarian spies on horseback” is a dream come true. There is a romance, although it’s not fully resolved, between Cye and Esther, and they have great chemistry.
I have a hunch that this book will launch an A+ series, but it feels too much like a prequel to be graded an A+ and too much of a good prequel to merit anything less than an B+. By the time I fully relaxed into it, it was over, not exactly on a cliffhanger but definitely with more plot hinted at ahead. This book leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how Librarians get their jobs, and what state the world is in. Additionally it leaves our characters on the brink of a new mission, which I’m dying to read about. This will not work for romance readers who want a full HEA, since it’s more of a Happy Ever Maybe. However, fans of both realistic and Weird West Stories will love this LBGTQIA reclaiming of the West.