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.