Lone Women by Victor LaValle Book Review


Readers of Victor LaValle’s horror novels are used to speeding through a New York City infested with supernatural creatures. In his new work, Lone Women, LaValle radically alters the setting, transporting us to the most rugged frontier of the Great Plains. But the author did not leave the animal life in Queens. When Adelaide Henry leaves for a homestead on a bare lot in Montana in 1915, she carries a loosely tied trunk that barely restrains a restless demon.

As in his previous novels dealing with supernatural beings, in “Lone Women” LaValle becomes shy and teases us with details that gradually reveal Adelaide’s complicated connection to the creature. He skilfully combines the eerie fairy tale with the historical realism of the early 20th century. At the beginning of the story, Adelaide is fleeing her community of black farmers in Southern California when her parents are violently killed in circumstances that LaValle keeps in the dark, revealing the key mystery of the story. After accidentally ripping an abandoned homestead from a real estate map, she makes her way to Big Sandy, Mont., a folksy small town where the residents admirably offer their support for surviving in adverse conditions. Just to reach Grace, her closest acquaintance, she must ride horse nine miles against incessant winds that whip the flatlands like a vicious antagonist. “This country is trying to kill every single one of us,” warns a local resident early on.

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Big Sandy has a Frontier Americana surface, distorted only by a slightly Gothic opera house that serves as a makeshift community space. Using historical research, LaValle vividly sketches rural geography as characters travel between the city and remote homesteads. Adelaide socially associates with men who work the land as cowboys or threshing crews. But as the story progresses, she becomes attracted to three unrelated women. She first befriends Grace and her young son Sam, who are being attacked by the Mudges, a family of itinerant outlaws led by four cold-blooded teenage boys. Soon after, Adelaide and Grace join Bertie and her romantic partner Fiona. The bond of the group is strengthened by their position as outsiders. Bertie is the only other black woman in Big Sandy, Fiona is Chinese American, and Grace, despite being white, is judged to be a single mother. In one particularly tender moment, Bertie combs and oils Adelaide’s hair as Adelaide sits between her friend’s knees and remembers the loving touch of her lost mother.

LaValle also reveals racial prejudice in the community, primarily towards Chinese and Japanese populations. While drinking at Blind Pig, Bertie’s bar, the opera house owner refers to Fiona as Celestial, an anti-Chinese slur. Adelaide keeps getting confused with Bertie. But LaValle keeps those moments in the background and incidental to the larger concerns of the story. These stubborn women have their hands full battling scarce resources, bands of predatory men, and ultimately the capricious and insatiable demon unleashed across the prairie.

As the demon grows into a more rounded and likable character, the youngest Mudge boy, Joab, snaps up the true villain role as a 12-year-old sociopath who’s equally at ease with gun, noose, or bare hands.

The demon, on the other hand, shows a vulnerable inner voice and a yen for music. The character enchants as a counterpart to the humorless Mudge crew, though LaValle slightly overdoes that “calm down the feral beast” trope. Still, he effectively uses the demon to develop the female characters. When Adelaide trusts her companions enough to confide her central family secret, others have confessional reckonings too, while the demon finds his own odd relationship with the circle.

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Throughout the story, Adelaide battles a second haunting presence, the lingering memory of her troubled mother declaring, “A woman is a mule.” With this apparent nod to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” LaValle connects “Lone Women” subtly incorporates an African-American literary storyline about a woman breaking free from a long-held social yoke. Transplanting this tale of small-town Southern roots into a western tale of self-reliance while also mixing in the wacky, the author has created an eccentrically satisfying literary mash-up.

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