Nathan’s review of Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Stories about the American West are difficult to write well. The idea of the West has been over-romanticized to the point where it is only too easy to gloss over the horrors, violence, and struggles inherently tangled up in Westward expansion across North America. As pop culture icons like Yellowstone become the most popular symbol of the modern Western U.S., and shows like Deadwood or the popular Westerns of the middle twentieth century for the historic West, we continue to white-wash the history of the West, making it solely the domain of the White man.
Luckily, this is starting to change as we have new stories about both the modern and historic West that are setting the record straight and telling the stories of history’s ignored and erased peoples. Victor Lavalle’s latest novel, Lone Women, explores the tensions of both race and gender in colonization of Montana through the lens of a Black woman, Adelaide, as she tries to keep a mysterious secret while also starting a new life for herself.
What results is a powerful historical-horror-thriller that explores the challenges of attempting to escape one’s past, while also adding richness and texture to the homesteading movement in Montana in the early 1900s. If you are a fan of historical fiction with light speculative elements, you cannot hesitate to pick this book up.
We have all experienced moments in our lives when we wish to escape – to flee the lives that we are living and start over. To unshackle ourselves from the chains of our trauma; to unburden ourselves from the baggage we accumulate as we trudge through the struggles of our lives. No one better exemplifies this feeling better than Adelaide herself, who burns her house down with her deceased parents inside when we first meet her in Lone Women. Her goal is to escape the life she has been living, a life that we readers are not privy to in these opening pages and go to Montana where land is freely available for those who are willing to farm it.
But Adelaide’s past is not just a metaphorical weight holding her down as she travels from California to Montana, she is lugging with her an actual box. Inside this box is a terrifying demon that Adelaide will do anything to prevent from escaping. This box, and the demon awaiting within it, becomes the core tension of Lone Women – the literal horror of a murderous and blood-thirsty creature, and Adelaide’s troubled family history that the box represents. Through this symbol, Lavalle expertly weaves a gorgeous and horrifying tale, one that might be scarier in the realm of reality than in the thriller and horror elements that Lavalle injects into the novel.
Within all of this, Lavalle doesn’t seem much interested in writing a horror or thriller novel, per se. It’s not easy to distill this book down into a genre, because in many ways there are horror and thriller elements. Characters get brutally murdered, there is a demon in a box, and there are perhaps even greater human threats as racism, sexism, and ablism rear their ugly heads. As the novel progresses, as readers we jump into the heads of a greater number of characters, both hero and foe, as the various plotlines all come careening towards each other. The main tension in the book doesn’t come from jump scares nor a devilish atmosphere, but rather the slow burn sense of foreboding as we can see these characters moving closer and closer into each other’s orbits, and we know that things won’t be pretty when they eventually collide.
So while there are thriller and horror attributes to Lone Women, it also a quiet and contemplative novel. Characters spend much time contemplating their own positions in society, their own needs, wants, and desires. There is much discussion and reflection on their own pasts, what got them to this point, and the traumas they carry with them. For all of these characters (both the protagonists and antagonists) carry trauma with them because happy people didn’t move West. The West was a place of rebirth, even though the trials and tribulations of life only tended to worsen when you got there. Lavalle ensures that this book is character forward; the plot is relatively simple and thin but it is Lavalle’s fully-realized and fleshed-out characters who add an immense depth to the novel and who make it compulsively readable.
And what a wonderful and diverse cast of characters populate this book. There is, of course, Adelaide, our main hero who we spend a majority of time of the novel with. Lavalle also surrounds Adelaide with so many other characters who contribute to the small Montana community Lavalle built, making the world feel lived in and complete despite being a rather short novel (I say, mostly coming from the chunky fantasy book space). Grace, one of the other titular lone women (Montana was one of the few places where women were granted land for working it without having a male relative with them) and her son Sam add joy, humor, and rising stakes as the novel progresses. Fiona and Bertie act as wonderful allies in Adelaide’s fight, as well as giving Adelaide a much-needed Black community in a white-dominated world. Even the villainous characters, the Reeds and mysterious Mudges, give the reader a lot to chew on and don’t feel villainous just for the sake of villainy.
Through this cast of characters Lavalle is able to explore feelings of racial isolation, implicit and structural sexism, as well as the fluidity of gender identity and gender roles as we move through the different contexts of our lives. The bigger ideas, what some might call the “literary” merit of the novel, are what make this book a compelling and fascinating character study, with the horror/mystery/thriller elements just adding onto the historical masterpiece that LaValle has created here.
Concluding Thoughts: Not necessarily for readers looking for screams and thrills, Lone Women is a masterfully told piece of literary speculative historical fiction about the traumas we are trying to escape and the baggage we carry. LaValle crafts a wholly original novel that not only deals with our metaphorical and literal demons, but also reorients our understanding of the American West away from the “White man” narratives we are often told toward those that are often erased – in this case, Black women. This was a powerful, tense novel of hardship, endurance, and rebirth, and now I cannot wait to dive into Lavalle’s back catalog of works.