‘Lone Women’ by Victor LaValle

The opening of ‘Lone Women’ captured my imagination. It was visually and emotionally powerful, taking me inside Adelaide Henry’s head and making it my home while still being aware that I didn’t know her at all, except that I knew she was going to be strong and full of surprises and the that some of them would not be nice surprises. From the beginning, the was a constant sense of foreboding, like a stink rising from the heavy, locked steamer trunk that Adelaide is the only thing Adelaide was hauling with her from the ashes of her old life to her new one.

For the first half of the book, I slipped into a satisfying piece of historical fiction with some supernatural elements to it.

The people were vividly drawn and very believable. The important characters were mostly strong women carving a place for themselves. What made them strong and the type of place they were trying to carve varied enormously, leaving room for conflict and collaboration between the women and getting me invested in their struggles.

I liked the way Montana itself became a character in the story. The way the wind beat relentlessly on the women trying to cross its vast, flat, empty spaces. At first, Adelaide thinks that the landscape is trying to kill all the settlers. Then she comes to recognise that the landscape is not inimical to them but completely indifferent to them. Not hostile, simply not a place where people should not choose to live. It took me a while to realise that this said a lot about the range of choices the Lone Women settling there saw themselves as having.

The historical context was established by showing the challenges the women in the story faced on a day-to-day basis rather than through an infodump or a covert history lecture. I can’t remember having read any other novel set in Montana at the start of the last century. It was all new to me and yet I felt that I was standing somewhere solid and real.

Violence, the threat of violence and the consequences of violence are the threads used to sow together the people, the place and the plot into a coherent pattern. Some of the violence and threat comes from Adelaides’ mysterious trunk. Some of it comes from predators she encounters along the way or who come hunting her and the people around her. Some of it is simply a taken-for-granted attribute of the time and place that Adelaide is living in. All of it is well done.

In this story, violence does more than keep the story moving and maintaining tension. Showing violence as ubiquitous, inevitable, and inescapable changes the characters’ and the reader’s reaction to it. When violence is not an aberration but an attribute, not a bug but a feature, everyone has to think through what use they will put violence to, who they are willing to protect and how they will do it.

The reality of violence makes everything more personal. There are no arms-length, delivered-by-faceless-institutions options for providing help or punishment. Whatever gets done, gets done by someone you know to someone you know.

It seemed to me that the ever-present potential for personally delivered violence partially explained why the women in the story seemed to have developed an ability to see situations and consequences more clearly than the men around them. The women have more hazards to protect themselves from and less power to do it with.

One way for the women to protect themselves is to stop being Lone Women and become part of a collective. At first, it seemed that Victor LaValle was using the Busy Bees, led by the wealthiest woman in town and promoting a version of sisterhood, female empowerment and mutual support, as an example of this. Then I understood that sisterhood was just a busker’s pitch to get the marks inside the Carney tent. What the Busy Bees really exemplify is the weaponisation of exclusion as a mechanism for sustaining and extending power and privilege through patronage. The concept of community is co-opted and refocussed not on mutual support but on defining who is ‘us’ and who shouldn’t be here at all.

For the most part, I enjoyed ‘Lone Women’ as a tense piece of historical fiction with some weirdness added to give it spice.

In the end though, it was the weirdness that I found hardest to deal with in this book. I really, really wanted to know what was in the steamer trunk. When I found out, I was surprised and intrigued. The answer was novel and scary but no more difficult to accept than many ideas that I swallow whole when I’m reading Urban Fantasy.

The thing is, this isn’t Urban Fantasy. I don’t think it’s horror either. I think this is fiction with an intent. The time and the place seem to have been chosen to make it easier to realise that intent. It seems to me that, the bones that the plot and character are stretched across before violence stitches them tightly in place, are not genre tropes but a set of messages or lessons.

Towards the end of the book, this bone structure seemed to break through the skin of the story, distracting me from what was going on and making me question whether I was supposed to see something real or just a symbol of something else or something real that was also a symbol of something else.

The people, events and setting of the book became so heavily burdened with symbolism or with an additional significance that I sometimes feel that a Chyron running across the bottom of the scenes I was visualising, distracting me from the tension of the plot by running captions like:

Do you see how defining people as different is the first step towards exclusion and the consolidation of power with the few?

Have you understood that society wants these women to be Lone Women, even while it excludes and punishes them for being so?

Freedom lies in the Lone Women coming together in an acceptance that there is strength in difference and diversity?

I stayed immersed in the book to the end. It was a stimulating read, full of powerful images. When it was over, I felt like I watched a really good movie but wished that they’d toned down the score a little.

Victor LaValle is an American writer based in New York City He is an Associate Professor at Columbia University

He is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, five novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, The Devil in SilverThe Changeling and Lone Women and two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom. He is also the creator and writer of two comic books Victor LaValle’s DESTROYER and EVE.

He has been awarded the World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Shirley Jackson Award, and the American Book Award.

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