Reviews > Published on March 22nd, 2023

"Lone Women" by Victor LaValle

There are authors out there who have sprawling bodies of work that can feel intimidating for the uninitiated. Where does a reader start with someone like Stephen King, for instance? (Yes, horror fiction conversations can exist without mentioning King, but this isn’t one of them.) Do you start from the beginning and pick up Carrie first? Clear your entire schedule and dive right into The Stand? Maybe dig into some of the lesser-known titles, if the hits are already familiar to you from the movie adaptations. But even narrowing the field in this way, what do you do? Just pick one up at random and hope for the best — i.e., not The Tommyknockers? (And even that one’s not so bad). Decision paralysis can easily set in when you’re dealing with a bibliography this massive. 

Then there is the collective work of a writer like Victor LaValle, which altogether could not repopulate an entire forest if scientists were to figure out how to turn paper back into trees, like that of King, but which is no less robust and impressive. The difference here is that with LaValle, there is no intimidation factor. His novels are open doors to wayward travelers of unforgiving landscapes, with dulcet fires, warm meals and bounties of hospitality waiting inside. It doesn’t matter which one you choose first; any one of them will leave you both satiated and craving more.

[LaValle's] novels are open doors to wayward travelers of unforgiving landscapes...

Such is definitely the case with Lone Women, which, given its setting — Montana, 1915 — features more than a few scenes of characters seeking shelter and kindness in the homes of others, and also trying to carve out enriching and comfortable lives in a land that, to paraphrase a big-hearted wagon driver who appears early in the novel, is hellbent on killing every person that sets foot on it. But while LaValle does a breathtaking job of depicting the most brutal aspects of the Montana plains — in particular, its wind, which he describes as an omnipresent, spine-snapping, altogether unpleasant and unforgiving presence — at the end of the day, the land is indiscriminately harsh, regardless of a person’s gender, race, age, or sexuality. It is other people, both within LaValle’s novel and in real life, who judge based on these qualities. 

Adelaide Henry, the primary “lone woman” at the center of the narrative, experiences both the inhospitality of nature and humanity when she moves from California to Montana to start a new life, leaving a horrific event behind but bringing with her a dark secret, one that may have something to do with the large steamer trunk she guards with her life. Horrors indeed emerge from this item from Adelaide’s past, but LaValle has a penchant for subverting the expectations of his readers in interesting and satisfying ways, and so what we think we know about the trunk — and what’s inside it — turns out not to be the case. Furthermore, while the evils of the human race are certainly under exploration here, LaValle is more interested in presenting a world where the targets of prejudice journey beyond victimhood and strive toward peace. It’s a beautiful narrative arc, one that moves from horror to hope. 

Beautiful too is LaValle’s prose. In a New York Times review for his 2017 novel, The Changeling, Jennifer Senior wrote

One of the reasons to read Victor LaValle’s novels is the simple sentence-by-sentence pleasure of them — they offer hundreds of baby dopamine hits, tiny baths for the prose snob’s reward system.

The same can easily be said for Lone Women as well, demonstrating LaValle’s continued mastery of the craft. He has a particularly excellent ability to winnow down complicated ideas and insights on the human condition into wonderfully-crafted aphorisms — perhaps the most pertinent being an observation made twice in the book: “History is simple... but the past is complicated.” 

The events outlined in Lone Women can very much be read as a map leading us out of our complicated, ugly past toward a better, more tolerant future. The novel is, in a word, delightful, and whether or not it is the first Victor LaValle book you pick up, it most certainly won’t be your last.

Get Lone Women at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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