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The heroine of Victor LaValle’s western gothic ‘Lone Women’ wrestles with a horror from her past

tonya engel for The Boston Globe

In Victor LaValle’s latest novel, “Lone Women,” Adelaide Henry torches her childhood home in California’s Lucerne Valley before dragging the burden that lives inside her steamer trunk to what she hopes will be a new, improved life in Big Sandy, Mont. Readers can be forgiven for thinking, right away, that Adelaide is some kind of psychopath. First, she apparently murders her family. Then she contemplates murdering a wagon driver, Mr. Cole, when he bad-mouths her family, one of a handful of Black farming families known for being odd and keeping to themselves. “A funny thing happens when a man thinks he has a woman’s company all to himself,” we learn early in the novel. “He may show a face to her that he would keep hidden if there were even one more person around. He speaks from his secret self.”


Adelaide herself has secrets enough without adding Mr. Cole’s. But “Lone Women” is also set in the Wild West of 1915. As awkward and hostile as people may be around Black and brown women now, their attitude toward a sturdy, tall Black woman like Adelaide in the early 1900s would have been frightening indeed.

The big secret Adelaide lugs around is both the reason she needs to leave home and the gruesome force that propels each scene — tender or bloody — in this western horror. The fire she set to consume her old life only reduces part of the past to ashes. The spirit of her mother, Eleanor, haunts her, alongside her consuming relationship to her twin sister, Elizabeth, who is different from her in a pivotal way that drives every moment of Adelaide’s life.

An observation from the novel’s halfway point: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it.” Adelaide wonders — to the reader and to herself — whether there could be a third kind of person: “One who overcomes the shame?”


There are plenty of robust, intriguing characters in each of the first two categories, and even the third as Adelaide follows the inspiration of a woman she read about in a newspaper clip and stakes a claim in a small town called Big Sandy. Her first friend in town, Grace Price, is a perfect example: Grace is a single mom to a child, Sam, who is observant and honest to a fault, like most kids. She lives with the shame of what happened to her husband but nevertheless accommodates Sam’s desire to live authentically. Mrs. Jerrine Reed, a formidable first lady of the town who leads a civic group of similar women called the Busy Bees, turns out to be very good at hiding the shame she lives with, but she’s in the first category, too.

Another question that drives “Lone Women” is whether Adelaide will become the heroine of her own story as well as this particular tale, which feels utterly doomed from the start. In spite of the ignorant and less than helpful men she encounters, it is easy enough for her to stake a claim on the empty, windy plains of Montana, where there are so few Black women that she almost immediately encounters the other one — Bertie Brown, who owns a bar called the Blind Pig. But Adelaide is constantly on the defense everywhere she goes — not only because she’s Black, but because the big trunk provokes the same curiosity in each wagon driver, cowboy, and fearsome stranger she meets. What’s in it? Gold? Money?


You will have to read the book for the details of the trunk’s contents. What kind of novel would it be, though, if at least one person — in this case, a handsome cowboy named Matthew Kirby — didn’t sneak a peek inside the forever locked trunk? A boring one, I think, without serious stakes. So, Matthew lets Adelaide seduce him so he can get the key to the lock and … let’s just say that he instantly has reason to regret it.

Unleashing Adelaide’s secret sets in motion a deadly and bloody course of events, disappears a bunch of horses, and leads to the death of a frightfully mean, well-written villain — Mrs. Mudge — and a couple of her boys. Two remaining boys — Joab Mudge and his brother, Delmus — pursue revenge, just as Adelaide has finally been free long enough for the reader to believe she might be able at last to overcome her shame.

The secret is out and about, roaming and hiding until the very end.

One of the many beautiful aspects of “Lone Women” is that it can be read as a metaphor for choosing how we each decide to live with what haunts us. You can carry it as a burden, and try to isolate yourself in the narrative of making a new life. Or you can share the load with others who, whether you know it or not, already share the shame with you.


In “Lone Women,” it turns out that facing your shame, letting others see you and your loved ones fully, offers a kind of freedom and surrender. Being willing to fight for a life that can withstand the light of truth allows Adelaide and so many others to build a future far less complicated than the past.


By Victor LaValle

One World, 304 pp., $27

Joshunda Sanders is the author of the forthcoming novel “Women of the Post.”