Lone Women (2023) by Victor LaValle

Lone Women
Lone Women
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Lone Women (2023) by Victor LaValle explores how the extreme conditions of a frontier setting can foster more fluid and creative affiliations. Without an entrenched social order to govern interactions, a Montana homesteading community makes it possible for Adelaide Henry, a woman of color, to adopt new identities and participate in unlikely partnerships. While this sounds great, Lone Women isn’t a utopian novel. In the character of Jerrine Reed, white feminism has made its way to the frontier, and it poses a threat to Adelaide and her friends. LaValle demonstrates how this movement’s exclusionary language can transform an unsettled space with the potential for collective equality into a stratified society where women of color are on the bottom. A fascinating look at how communities are formed and destroyed, the novel dares us to imagine how we could do things differently and, maybe, better. This is definitely my favorite book of 2023. 

It’s 1915 in Lucerne, California, a homesteading town of Black farmers. Adelaide Henry douses her family farm with gasoline and sets it alight, leaving the savaged bodies of her parents to burn in their beds. She takes nothing but a large and extremely heavy Seward Steamer Trunk, which contains her family’s curse, a burden that she must bear for the rest of her life. Is this a figurative burden or, as its weight suggests, something more literal? And does it have something to do with the death of her parents? With her unwieldy trunk, Adelaide flees to Big Sandy, Montana, where, as part of a government program encouraging the domestication of the frontier, she claims a dilapidated cabin and a sour well on a 320 acre claim. To survive in such a brutal climate, Adelaide must join in the local community and engage in a neighborly economy of mutual support. But can she safely reveal herself to friends or does the terrible secret in the trunk condemn her to a life of loneliness? 

The novel’s focus on the flexibility of identifications in a homesteading situation appears early on in California with Adelaide’s deep connection to Gilbert Markham, a character in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Conscripted into the life of toil that her parents have chosen, she sympathizes with Gilbert who, despite his own desire for something more, must assume his father’s role of “gentleman farmer in-shire” (42). More than mere sympathy, she sees herself in him as in a mirror: “[T]he first lines of that story weren’t about some British man, but about her,” she thinks (42). This identification is counter-intuiive for a variety of reasons. First, as she reflects on her reading of Gilbert, he is a financially comfortable, white, British male, while she is an economically insecure black woman in America. What’s more surprising to me, though, is that she sees herself in Gilbert and not in Bronte’s character Helen Graham, a young woman escaping a dark family secret who, secluding herself in Wildfell Hall, is the primary subject of the town’s gossip. Her story is congruent with Adelaide’s in so many ways. 

That she chooses Gilbert over Helen, the much more obvious point of identification, is, I think, LaValle’s point: African Americans have always had to imaginatively inhabit white characters because people of color are not adequately represented in print and visual media. If they want to read, watch a movie or generally participate in popular culture, they must stretch, and that’s what Adelaide is doing. However, her extreme circumstances compel her to be even more creative. Ostracized by her neighbors who call the Henry’s “queer” folk and living with parents who can’t fathom her dreams, she grasps at a subject position that, more than Helen, removes her from her present setting and resonates, however remotely, with her aspirations. 

This fluidity of identification extends to interpersonal relationships on the Montana frontier, where unlikely associations and new personas flourish. The friendship between Adelaide and Grace could only exist in the wilds of Montana, where the need for human contact and mutual aid in a brutal environment takes priority over the factors that typically determine compatibility. Their backgrounds are completely dissimilar and they share no interests other than staying alive and maintaining their basic humanity through conversation. Adelaide also rides with the Kirbys and receives visits from men of diverse colors, occupations and languages. While mixed interactions like this would be frowned upon or even forbidden in more established parts of the country, they are crucial in an outpost where food is scarce, trade is essential, and people are lonely. The freedom afforded by the frontier to fashion new selves can also be exploited. Leveraging their talent for reinvention, the Mudges depend on the social instability of homesteading regions for the success of their crimes. 

Lone Women does a great job of foregrounding the importance of intersectional feminism. The white feminism championed by Jerrine Reed can never empower a diverse community because it defines itself through exclusion and violence. When resources are limited, women of color are the first to suffer; and when Big Sandy falls under the shadow of Adelaide’s demon, they are the first to die. 

Reed deploys false binaries to persuade her white audience that Adelaide and her friends are evil; and, indeed, at the core of this novel is an interest in how language can be used to distance and dehumanize others. Adelaide feels guilt for not better managing the entity in her trunk, but she soothes the sting of her shame by calling it a “burden.” You can’t feel bad for wanting to get rid of a “curse” or for starving and imprisoning a “demon,” can you? But how do her responsibilities toward the entity change if it is a creature, a goddess, or a human being? Is she playing language games to justify cruelty and mitigate her own accountability? 

While novels about the early 20th century often reflect on WWI, Lone Women turns from world events to emphasize the extreme isolation of the people it describes. By decentering events in Europe, it offers a glimpse of a time and place in America that I knew little about, where there were opportunities for women and people of color that I wouldn’t have guessed. This unique setting is rife with possibilities for both horror and hope, which is why Lone Women is such a rare and fascinating book. 


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