Once in a blue moon you encounter a book that feels like it was tailor made to you specifically. It’s written by an author you love in a genre you are obsessed with and with characters and a premise that make you shiver with anticipation. It’s the kind of book where just hearing the elevator pitch makes you slam the preorder button. Where it’s not a matter of whether or not you’ll like it but how much of your personality it’s going to become when you finally finish it. For me, that book is Victor LaValle’s new historical horror novel Lone Women.
“There were twenty-seven Black farming families in California’s Lucerne Valley in 1915… After today there would only be twenty-six.” With a fire burning at her back and a trunk holding a terrible secret at her feet, Adelaide Henry runs from the Golden State to Big Sky Country to start a new life as a homesteader. Once in Montana, Adelaide meets the mysterious Mrs. Mudge and her four disconcerting boys, the widow Mrs. Grace Price and her unruly son Sam, the domineering town leaders Mr. and Mrs. Reed, and the ruggedly attractive Kirby men. On the edges of Big Sandy live Chinese American Fiona Wong and a Black moonshiner called Bertie Brown, who make a living doing laundry and slinging drinks to white men.
Out there in the great beyond, terror lurks. The thing in Adelaide’s trunk breaks free and slaughters its way across the landscape, but it’s not the only thing hunting on the plains. Grace and Adelaide are attacked in their homes by sadistic thieves. Ghosts haunt the hills, luring visitors to a fiery doom. And in town, those with the most power wield it like a sword to the throat against those with the least. Adelaide hopes that Montana will be where she can finally be free of her worst nightmare, but the price must be paid in blood.
The novel is split into three sections. The first deals with Adelaide escaping California and what she calls her “curse,” the second on the repercussions of that freedom, and the third is her discovery that independence doesn’t mean being alone. Lone Women is a story about women, and specifically marginalized women. Victor LaValle makes clear the distinction between women with power (Mrs. Mudge, Mrs. Reed), those with only some power (Grace, who uses hers to protect a powerless trans person), and those without or whose power is fleeting (Adelaide, Fiona, and Bertie). LaValle not only uses history as a vehicle to tell this story, but revels in the vast diversity of that history.
There really was a Big Sandy with a general store run by Marlow and McNamara, and there also was a Glendale with its defunct mines and abandoned kilns. Mattie T. Cramer was a homesteader who wrote about her life for newspapers out of her place near Malta. Birdie (or Bertie) Brown and Annie Morgan were real, too, although they only overlapped for a few years. Birdie died in 1933 in a gasoline explosion; she had been making moonshine while also using gasoline to clean laundry. Fiona Wong is, as far as I can tell, wholly fictional, but there were real women just like her making do in the face of the worst this country has to offer. Chinese immigrants flocked to Montana starting in the 1860s. By the 1870s, about 10% of the state’s population were Chinese residents, but a tidal wave of anti-Chinese legislation more or less killed that boom. Those who weren’t forced out by exclusionary laws, ordinances, and fees were often driven out by massacres, riots, racially motivated killings, and arson. Because the Homestead Act was limited to citizens and because Chinese immigrants were ineligible for citizenship, they could not apply for homestead claims.
Let’s back up for a minute. For the first half of my career, I ran a county archives where we spent a lot of time researching marginalized people whose stories had been obscured by the dominant, whitewashed historical narrative. I’ve also written two books on the history of marginalized communities in Napa, and have quite a bit of knowledge on the history of California in general, especially with regards to Black, Mexican/Californio, Chinese, and Indigenous people. All of this is a long way of explaining how, when I saw that Lone Women began in Lucerne Valley in the early 20th century, I damn near fell out of my chair. Do you know how few historical fiction books by and about Black people are set in the non-metro regions of California? That tiniest fraction of a number gets even tinier when you narrow down to speculative fiction.
It’s not uncommon to hear (white) people wonder why there were so few Black people in the historical West. Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal insisted in his 1942 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy that “Negroes did not participate in the settlement of the West.” A little more than a decade later, Walter Prescott Webb, at the time one of the most influential historians of the American West, furthered that claim by saying what defined the West was its lack of “water, timber, cities, industry, and Negroes.” If you take as true the story of the brave white man and his patient wife civilizing the frontier, then sure, no wonder they thought we weren’t around. Yet even a quick dive into primary resources paint a very different picture. We have been here a long time, and the reason there aren’t more of us is because white people intentionally kept us out. To quote Mrs. Reed, “Men take everything that happened and try to make a story out of it…But when the tale becomes too complicated, they just … leave things out…History is simple, but the past is complicated.”
Black people have been in the West since before the pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock. Less proudly, we were also active participants in the theft and colonization of Indigenous lands, from Afro-Latinx Californios on ranchos and in missions to African Americans gaining land through homesteading. We did what we had to in order to survive in a capitalist economy, but it was not without cost. In the novel we meet Métis trader Mr. Cardinal who, while not unsympathetic to the plights of Fiona, Bertie, and Adelaide, also recognizes that they’re fighting for ownership of territory that was stolen from someone else. And as he rightly points out, what few bloodsoaked rights they have in Montana are more than they’d have in Canada.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you aren’t familiar with Lucerne Valley. This part of California doesn’t get much attention. The Forum, an organization born out of the First African Methodist Episcopal church in LA, promoted the Sidewinder Valley region (close to Lucerne Valley) for Black homesteaders in 1903. A year later, the African Society in San Bernardino raised $10,000 to fund the settlement of the Inland Empire. Adelaide Henry’s parents came from Arkansas, lured in by the Homestead Act of 1862. If Adelaide wanted to homestead in an unforgiving landscape, she needn’t have even left California. Affluent Black Los Angelenos used the Homestead Act to establish an agricultural community in Lanfair Valley near the Mojave Desert and the Nevada border in 1910. Or perhaps she should have used Alice Ballard as her example of freedom rather than Mattie Cramer; Alice was a single Black woman who proved up her claim to 160 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains in 1901.
Although they were farming a decade or so before those calls rang out from the Black community, they were only the tip of the migration iceberg. Around the same time Glenville Henry began planting Luther Burbank’s plums in Lucerne, Colonel Allen Allensworth founded his own settlement a little ways north in Tulare County. Allensworth was a formerly enslaved man who escaped to join the Union soldiers in the Civil War and later became a chaplain for the Buffalo Soldiers. He retired the same year as the Great San Francisco Earthquake as the then-highest ranking African American in US army history. Allensworth was California’s first and only Black-founded town. Black-founded towns were not uncommon in the Southwest, and most subscribed to what historian Dr. Arthur L. Tolson described as “ideologies of economic advancement, self-help, and racial solidarity.” Many died out during the Great Depression or were cannibalized by urban and suburban sprawl.
Why am I telling you all this about a section of the book that only spans a few chapters? Because LaValle could opened this novel anywhere, but he chose the Inland Empire. If you know Black California, then that setting tells you a lot about the Henry family’s attitude of self-reliance, why it’s such a point of contention that they barely attended church, and why (at least in part) they’re designated as “queer” by their Black neighbors. The “curse” they kept locked away in the barn was a denunciation of everything they’ve strived to achieve in the land of gold and opportunity. It is the rot at the center of their perfect plums, the harsh reality sullying the dream of Black progress.
Many (but certainly not all) Black Californians during this era relied on Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist rhetoric or W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth” ideology as their guiding principles for Black social and economic improvement. They knew they’d face racism in the West, but it was better than what was happening in the post-Reconstruction South. The 1910 census recorded more than 20,000 Black people living in California. Some of those residents had come during the Gold Rush as free or enslaved, some had come when the gates opened after the Civil War, and some came in the rush to “colonize” the state for the betterment of Black folks. In his 1913 article for The Crisis, Du Bois praised “the new blood of California with its snap and ambition [for capturing] Los Angeles” while also warning readers that “the color line there is sharply drawn.” California was and is a state of striking contradictions, its racism masquerading as progressivism. Surrounded by other Black folks in Lucerne Valley, Adelaide learned that the goal was to focus on bettering yourself and your people. “A woman on her own, a Black woman out here in Montana, far from the Black community she’d known in Lucerne Valley, must remain vigilant for her own sense of safety. In truth, she’d never been around so many white people.”
The key to understanding the Henrys—and the key to the patterns of Black settlement and civic engagement in the West—lies in understanding these principles. As Washington wrote in his autobiography Up From Slavery, “No white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.” They key to upward mobility and success, then, is couched in whiteness; not that they wanted to be white, but that white people set the goalposts and it was up to Black folks to reach them. The Henrys farmed, went to church, started a family, proved up their homestead, and did all the respectable things a good Negro citizen should do. Until they couldn’t. Until their “curse” stained their reputation.
Adelaide ventures to Montana with that self-reliance framework in mind, believing she’d finally have the freedom to build her own life. Yet at the same time she attaches herself to “respectable” white women like Grace and Mrs. Reed. At first she tries to pull herself up by her bootstraps by replicating what other white homesteading women have done. She romances a young white man and attends all-white town events. Eventually when the white women’s masks come off, Adelaide learns the hard way that you cannot “respectability politics” your way out of systemic racial oppression. She’s violently reminded (not that she needed the reminder) that she’s a Black woman in a world that thrives on misogynoir. Not until she embraces the things that make her “queer,” does she gain true freedom. The novel opens with the quote “There are two kinds of people: those who live with shame, and those who die from it.” Perhaps there’s a third option: those who realize what others see as shameful is actually a point of pride because it’s what makes you you.
Repeatedly we’re shown how Fiona, Bertie, and Adelaide are held to different standards, how these three women of color anticipate being treated differently—when she first arrives, Adelaide is annoyed at being ignored by a white reporter; later she thrills at being invited in by the white wife of the richest man in town. Despite her son’s “uncivilized” behavior and her abusive husband’s suspicious death, Grace Price is still able to coast on her white femininity. She isn’t cast out or categorized as “other” in the same ways Fiona, Bertie, and Adelaide are. Mrs. Mudge and Mrs. Reed, too, exploit that cloak of genteel womanliness, but for reasons that are much less honorable than Grace’s. Here, LaValle peels apart the veneer of solidarity that lumps all women together while pretending there aren’t real divides in terms of rights and privileges. The (white) women who work the hardest to fit the impossible standards set by the patriarchy are the same ones who use their femininity to brutalize the women who refute or are otherwise are excluded from conforming to said standards.
We see this difference in Adelaide’s two wagon journeys. First, with Mr. Cole, when he settles into a power display of social hierarchy by treating her like dirt. If Adelaide were white, he would tip his hat and “yes ma’am” her into a smile because there are few things more dangerous to a Black man than an angry white woman. Instead he’s crass and disrespectful because he can be, because she’s a Black woman who holds no social capital. When Mr. Olsen takes her out to her claim, she’s treated exactly the same as Mrs. Mudge. Adelaide mistakes equality for equity. That leads her to her affair with a white man who she thinks sees her as a partner but who has really just reduced her to a sexual object. He can’t seduce respectable white women without ruining either of their reputations, but sleeping with a Black woman carries no consequences for him (it most certainly does for her). All along, Adelaide knows she will be held to a different standard than white women—no Black woman in early 20th century America could forget that. It’s up to her to choose what she wants more: to adhere to white social standards of what is respectable and appropriate or to choose the chaotic, powerful things that stand her apart.
In many ways, Lone Women reminds me of Stephen Graham Jones’ stunning novel The Only Good Indians. Both weave together colonization, horror, and culture to tell a story about confronting the worst part of your past and clawing and cutting your way to some semblance of a future. Neither are mainly about racism per se, but racism plays a central role because this is the US and you can’t sincerely talk about being BIPOC in this country without engaging with it. On the surface, Lone Women is a shocking story about violence and trauma as it ripples through families and spreads into their community. It features a brave woman standing up to racists and tyrants and rediscovering hope and trust. However, if you dig down into the truth of the history and there’s a whole world of commentary, incisive and unflinching, simmering below.
Lone Women is published by One World.
Read an excerpt here.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).