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

LONE WOMEN, by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s enthralling fifth novel, “Lone Women,” opens like a true western, with a scene of dark, bloody upheaval and a hint of vengeance. But nothing in this genre-melding book is as it seems. When we meet Adelaide Henry, the grown daughter of Black farmers, she is in a daze, dumping gasoline all over her family’s farmhouse. We don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing, what happened to her family or, most important, what else she has or hasn’t done.

She is leaving the toil and lush isolation of Southern California’s Lucerne Valley, where her only neighbors have been other Black farmers, and her only friends her own parents, whose corpses she has tucked into bed to be set aflame. Adelaide will soon escape to the harsh beauty of Montana as one of the “lone” women acquiring a homestead of 320 acres from the federal government. If she can survive three years there, cultivating the land and making it habitable, the land will become hers.

The year is 1915, during the United States’ Progressive Era, a time not often explored in westerns. It is just before Prohibition and women’s suffrage, after the Gold Rush, after the booms and busts, when there are already ghost towns and abandoned mining camps, and the cowboy life is on the wane. The car hasn’t yet replaced the horse, except among the wealthy. Montana is still a place of long distances and isolation, where a farmer turned fugitive like Adelaide feels that she can hide.

The year 1915 is also when D.W. Griffith’s inflammatory film “The Birth of a Nation” is released. It’s an ode to the myth of the Lost Cause, the revisionist history that casts the Old South as a noble victim and slavery as a benevolent institution, and celebrates white supremacist patriarchy. As a single Black woman heading into the Badlands, Adelaide is aware of her proximity to racial and gender violence, but intriguingly, she’s most concerned with what’s inside the staggeringly heavy, locked steamer trunk that she drags from California to Seattle and on to Montana.

A newcomer in a sparsely populated state, Adelaide realizes that she can’t be anonymous, though the white townspeople she encounters are kind at first, thankfully making few inquiries about her past. She longs for intimacy and affection, especially in such a desolate landscape. In her dilapidated cabin on the cusp of winter, Adelaide feels haunted by her secrets, which she has kept thus far because she has been taught to shoulder her burdens in silence. But as she encounters other lone women — the only other Black woman in the area and a young Chinese American — as well as a neighboring widow and her son, she begins to feel that sharing these secrets might be the key to her self-preservation.

Like the mythic Pandora’s box that releases curses on humankind, Adelaide’s locked trunk cannot stay closed, and her bid for freedom from her past reveals its cost. Blood is shed; horses and people go missing. A white lynch mob looms, and the lone women on the margins soon find themselves not so welcome.

The book moves in and out of multiple perspectives in the third person, complicating some of its more predatory characters. It most often returns to the gliding clarity of Adelaide, whose interiority feels modern, is not overladen with vernacular and is shaped by concerns of the time. The combination of LaValle’s agile prose, the velocity of the narrative and the pleasure of upended expectations makes this book almost impossible to put down.

LaValle is deeply interested in inheritance, what is passed down through generations, particularly between mother and child, who are as tethered to each other as Adelaide is to the trunk key she wears around her neck. That bond is a source of constriction but also comfort, a constant, familiar presence whether the parent has been a “good” mother or not. The orphaned characters in the book, Adelaide included, are at a loss to proceed without the beacon of the mother. They grapple with how they should live, how to make connections with others when their mothers’ narrow cosmologies are no longer available. They come to want to move through the world differently, but find it hard to shake the way they’ve been raised, to slip loose of their values: being self-reliant, not bringing dishonor on the family, and keeping its secrets no matter the hypocrisy or who suffers.

We hold secrets to hide, to stay out of trouble, or because we’re ashamed, but sometimes we realize, especially if we’ve been carrying these secrets since we were children, that the ugly parts of the truth aren’t always of our own making. Keeping them inside kills us slowly over time, the novel observes, and keeps us from living lives that are truly free.

LaValle’s “Lone Women” deftly weaves history, horror, suspense and the perspectives of those rarely recorded in the West. It opens with a quote from Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”: “Wanna fly, you got to give up the [expletive] that weighs you down.” There’s a muscular poetics in the line: the “wanna” and the “weigh,” the “got” and the “give,” and the profane punctuation. The language is in service to the notion that surrender is freedom. Letting go of the past, of shame, allows one to become someone new. It’s an apt invocation in a novel centered on marginalized women in the American West who are finding ways to do more than just survive.

Chanelle Benz is the author of “The Gone Dead” and the short story collection “The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead.”

LONE WOMEN | By Victor LaValle | 281 pp. | One World | $27

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