Some books make you stop, take notice and question: question the narratives we’ve been told about our history and the narratives we’ve told ourselves about ourselves. Victor LaValle’s latest novel, Lone Women, is one such book.
Lone Women tells the story of Adelaide Henry, who keeps a secret locked in a steamer trunk at the foot of her bed. After the deaths of her parents, she moves from California to Montana to make a life for herself. The deal is simple: If she can farm a plot of land for three years as a homesteader, the land is hers. But Montana isn’t what the pamphlets said it would be. The winters are harder, and the people—though kind—have harsh edges. Still, Adelaide finds friends in the form of Grace, a single mother on the next homestead over, and Bertie, a saloon owner who happens to be the only other Black woman in the area. As Adelaide settles in, she begins to think that she can forget what lies within her trunk. But secrets have a way of getting out, no matter how hard you try to keep them in.
LaValle combines historical fiction with horror to create a tapestry of desolation, wonder, despair and hope. Lone Women isn’t set in the American West as we know it—or at least not the male-dominated American West that is portrayed in midcentury Westerns. LaValle is determined not to whitewash the past, showing not only the full spectrum of people who settled as homesteaders, including women of color, but also the wreckage of Montana’s boom and bust development. He treats the reader to explorations of ghost towns alongside canny character studies of the types of people who would choose a life as hard as the one of a homesteader.
LaValle’s descriptions of the Montana wilderness are as stark and expansive as the land itself, making it painfully clear how someone could get prairie fever or freeze to death out in Big Sky Country. When it comes to Adelaide’s secret, his prose takes on the feeling of a waking nightmare, full of horrific discovery. LaValle explores the themes of shame and ostracization through not just Adelaide’s secret but also the expertly revealed reasons why many of Adelaide’s new friends aren’t fully accepted in town.
A powerful study in setting and character with a healthy dose of horror, Lone Women will forever change the way you think about the Wild West.