Victor LaValle's Latest Mixes Horror With a History of the West

The novel is about a Black homesteader in Montana who is haunted by secrets and a dark past.

Victor LaValle's Latest Mixes Horror With a History of the West

Victor LaValle, LONE WOMEN

Victor LaValle's captivating fifth novel, "Lone Women", opens like a western with a scene that is dark and bloody, as well as a hint at vengeance. This genre-bending book is not what it seems. Adelaide Henry, the adult daughter of Black farmers is in a state of confusion when we meet her. She's dumping gasoline all over the farmhouse that she lives with. We don't know what to make of her actions, or what has happened to her family.

She is moving to the lush isolation and toil of Southern California's Lucerne Valley. Her only neighbors were other Black farmers and her only friends were her parents, whose bodies she has buried in bed to be burned. Adelaide, one of the "lone" women who acquired a homestead on 320 acres from federal government, will soon be able to escape to Montana's harsh beauty. The land will be hers if she survives three years of cultivating it and making it habitable.

It is 1915 during the United States' Progressive Era. This time period is rarely explored in westerns. It's just before Prohibition, women's suffrage and after the Gold Rush. There are ghost towns and abandoned mining camps and the cowboy lifestyle is in decline. Except for the very wealthy, the car has not yet replaced the horse. Montana is still isolated and a place where farmers like Adelaide feel they can hide.

D.W. Griffith's incendiary film 'The Birth of a Nation,' released in 1915. It is an ode of the Lost Cause myth, which celebrates white supremacist patriarchy and casts slavery as a benevolent institution and the Old South as a noble victim. Adelaide, a Black woman traveling into the Badlands as a single Black woman, is acutely aware of the dangers of racial violence and gender violence. But, what she really cares about is the contents of the steamer trunk, which she lugs from California to Seattle to Montana.

Adelaide, a newcomer to a state with little population, realizes she cannot be anonymous. However, the friendly white people she meets are very kind and make few questions about her past. In such a barren landscape, she longs for intimacy and affection. Adelaide is haunted by the ghosts of her past. She has kept them secretly since she was taught to carry her burdens in silence. She begins to believe that sharing her secrets with other women, including a Black woman and a young Chinese American, is the best way to protect herself.

Adelaide's locked trunk, like the mythic Pandora's Box that unleashes curses upon humankind, cannot be closed. Her quest to free herself from her past is a costly one. Horses and people are killed; blood is shed. The white lynch mob is visible, and the lonely women at the margins are soon made to feel unwelcome.

The book is written in third person and can be seen from multiple perspectives, which complicates some of its predatory characters. It often returns to Adelaide's gliding clarity. Adelaide's interiority is modern and not weighed down by vernacular, but is shaped by the times. This book is almost impossible to put down because of LaValle’s fluid prose, narrative speed and pleasure at upending expectations.


LaValle is very interested in inheritance. She is particularly interested in what is passed down from generation to generation, especially between mother and child. This bond is both a source and a source for constriction, as well as comfort, and a constant, familiar presence, regardless of whether the mother has been a good mother. Adelaide is one of the orphaned characters. Without her mother's guidance, they are unable to move forward. They struggle with their lives and how to connect with others, even though their mother's narrow views are not applicable. They want to see the world differently but struggle to change the way they were raised.

Sometimes we have secrets we need to keep quiet, avoid trouble or be ashamed of. But sometimes, especially if these secrets have been with us since childhood, we come to realize that the ugly truths are not always our fault. The novel observes that keeping them in our heads slows down our ability to live a life of freedom and happiness.

LaValle's "Lone Women" seamlessly weaves history, horror and suspense, revealing the perspectives of people rarely seen in the West. It opens with Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" quote: "Wanna fly? You have to give up everything that weighs you down." The line has a strong poetics: the wanna', the weigh, the?got', the?give', and the profane punctuation. This language serves the idea that freedom is surrender. The ability to let go of the shame and past allows you to be someone new. This is a fitting invocation for a novel that centers on women from the American West who have been marginalized and are trying to survive.