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Victor LaValle’s ‘Lone Women’ recasts the American frontier narrative

This novel portrays women of color forging community on a haunted prairie

4 min

Readers of Victor LaValle’s horror-tinged novels are used to careening across a New York City seeded with supernatural creatures. In his new offering, “Lone Women,” LaValle radically shifts setting, transplanting us to the starkest Great Plains frontier. But the author hasn’t left beastly life back in Queens. When Adelaide Henry sets out in 1915 to homestead on a bare-bones Montana acreage, she’s toting a loosely shackled steamer trunk that barely restrains a fitful demon.

As in his previous novels that feature supernatural beings, LaValle gets coy in “Lone Women,” teasing us by trickling details that gradually reveal Adelaide’s intricate connection to the creature. Meanwhile, he adroitly intertwines the eerie fairy tale with early-20th-century historical realism. At the story’s outset, Adelaide flees her Black farmers community in Southern California when her parents are violently killed under circumstances that LaValle leaves obscure, setting up the story’s key mystery. After randomly plucking an abandoned homestead site off a real estate map, she heads to Big Sandy, Mont., a folksy small town where residents admirably offer her support for survival under forbidding conditions. Just to reach her nearest acquaintance, Grace, she has to ride nine miles by horse against incessant winds that whip the flatland like a vicious antagonist. “This land is trying to kill every single one of us,” one resident warns early on.

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Big Sandy has a frontier Americana surface, skewed only by a slightly Gothic opera house that serves as a makeshift community square. Using historical research, LaValle vividly sketches the rural geography, as characters travel between the town and the isolated homesteads. Adelaide connects socially with men who work the land as cowboys or on threshing crews. But as the story progresses, she gravitates toward three independent women. She first befriends Grace and her young son, Sam, who are attacked by the Mudges, a family of itinerant outlaws led by four coldblooded adolescent boys. Soon after, Adelaide and Grace bond with Bertie and her romantic partner, Fiona. The group’s ties are strengthened by their position as outsiders. Bertie is the only other Black woman in Big Sandy, Fiona is Chinese American and Grace, though White, is judged for being a single mother. In one particularly tender moment, Bertie combs and oils Adelaide’s hair, as Adelaide sits between her friend’s knees, recalling her lost mother’s affectionate touch.

LaValle also depicts racial prejudice in the community, primarily toward the Chinese and Japanese population. While drinking in the Blind Pig, Bertie’s bar, the opera house owner refers to Fiona as Celestial, an anti-Chinese slur. Adelaide deals with repeatedly being mistaken for Bertie. But LaValle keeps these moments in the background and incidental to the story’s larger concerns. These tenacious women have their hands full contending with scant resources, bands of predatory men and, ultimately, the capricious and insatiable demon unleashed across the prairie.

While the demon emerges into a more rounded and sympathetic figure, the youngest Mudge boy, Joab, snatches the true villain role as a 12-year-old sociopath equally composed with gun, noose or bare hands.

The demon, on the other hand, is revealed to possess a vulnerable inner voice and yen for music. The character charms as a foil to the humorless Mudge crew, though LaValle slightly overindulges this “soothe the savage beast” trope. Yet he effectively employs the demon to develop the female characters. When Adelaide trusts her companions enough to confide her core family secret, others also have confessional reckonings, while the demon finds its own curious relationship to the circle.

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Throughout the story, Adelaide battles a second haunting presence, the persistent memory of her burdened mother declaring, “a woman is a mule.” With this apparent allusion to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” LaValle subtly links “Lone Women” to an African American literary storyline envisioning a woman who unshackles herself from a societal yoke long weighed upon her. By replanting this narrative with small-town Southern roots into a western self-reliance tale, while mixing in the deranged, the author has fashioned an eccentrically satisfying literary mash-up.

Erik Gleibermann is a journalist and literary critic in San Francisco. He recently completed a memoir on interraciality, “Jewfro American.”

Lone Women

By Victor LaValle

One World. 304 pp. $27

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