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Review | Victor LaValle’s ‘Lone Women’ recasts the story of the American frontier


Readers of Victor LaValle’s horror-tinged novels are used to rampaging through a New York City riddled with supernatural creatures. In his new offering, “Lone Women,” LaValle radically changes the setting, transporting us to the grittiest frontier of the Great Plains. But the author has not left the beastly life in Queens. When Adelaide Henry sets out for a homestead on a barren stretch of land in Montana in 1915, she lugs a loosely chained steamer trunk that a restless demon can barely contain.

As in his previous novels featuring supernatural creatures, LaValle becomes restrained in “Lone Women,” teasing us by dribbling details that gradually reveal Adelaide’s intricate connection to the creature. Meanwhile, he deftly interweaves the eerie fairytale with early 20th-century historical realism. At the beginning of the story, Adelaide flees her black farming community in Southern California when her parents are violently murdered under circumstances that leave LaValle unclear, creating the main mystery of the story. After randomly picking an abandoned farm site from a real estate map, she heads to Big Sandy, Mont., a working-class town where residents admirably lend her support to survive under ominous conditions. Just to reach her closest acquaintance, Grace, she must ride nine miles on horseback against incessant winds that rage across the flat land like a vicious adversary. “This country is trying to kill us all,” one resident warns early on.

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Big Sandy has a frontier Americana surface, skewed only by a slightly gothic opera house that serves as a makeshift community square. Using historical research, LaValle vividly sketches rural geography, as characters travel between the city and isolated farms. Adelaide bonds socially with men who work the land as cowboys or on threshing ploughs. But as the story progresses, she becomes attracted to three independent women. She first befriends Grace and her young son Sam, who are attacked by the Mudges, a family of itinerant outlaws led by four cold-blooded adolescent boys. Soon after, Adelaide and Grace bond with Bertie and her romantic partner, Fiona. The group’s bond is strengthened by their position as outsiders. Bertie is the only other black woman in Big Sandy, Fiona is Chinese American, and Grace, though white, is rated a single mother. In a particularly tender moment, Bertie combs and greases Adelaide’s hair, while Adelaide sits between her friend’s knees, recalling the loving touch of her lost mother.

LaValle also shows racial prejudice in the community, primarily towards the Chinese and Japanese populations. While drinking at the Blind Pig, Bertie’s bar, the owner of the opera house refers to Fiona as Celestial, an anti-Chinese slur. Adelaide is repeatedly mistaken for Bertie. But LaValle keeps these moments in the background and incidental to the larger concerns of the story. These tenacious women have their hands full battling scarce resources, gangs of predatory men, and ultimately the fickle and insatiable demon unleashed across the prairie.

As the demon becomes a more rounded and likable figure, the youngest Mudge boy, Joab, seizes the true villain role as a 12-year-old sociopath equally placid with a gun, noose, or bare hands.

The demon, on the other hand, is shown to have a fragile inner voice and a desire for music. The character charms as a foil to the humorless Mudge crew, though LaValle kind of indulges in this “calm the savage beast” trope. Still, he effectively uses the demon to develop the female characters. When Adelaide trusts her companions enough to confide in her family secret, others have confessions as well, while the demon finds his own curious relationship with the circle.

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Throughout the story, Adelaide battles a second terrifying presence, the lingering memory of her burdened mother declaring, “a woman is a mule.” With this clear allusion to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” LaValle subtly links “Lone Women” to an African-American literary storyline that envisions a woman breaking free of a societal yoke that has long been upon her. . By replanting this small-town Southern roots into a Western self-reliance tale, while mixing in the deranged, the author has created an eccentrically satisfying literary medley.

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