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When Victor LaValle finds himself in a city he probably won’t return to, he picks up a book on its history. About a decade ago, the Shirley Jackson Award–winning author grabbed one such volume called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own after a reading in Missoula, Mont. It spotlighted the beneficiaries of a little-known government program that offered women free land in the early 20th century if they could make it agriculturally viable within six years.
“I asked some folks I met who had grown up in Montana, ‘Do you know about these women?’ and none of them knew,” LaValle says on a Zoom call from his home in the Bronx, clad in tight round glasses and a gray flannel. “And I said, ‘Well, if you don’t even know, maybe I have a story.’ ”
That story, a version of which was published in the 2014 anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, has now been expanded into Lone Women (One World, Mar.), LaValle’s first novel in five years. It marks the 50-year-old horror writer’s return to prose after a diversion into comics, and his first book set outside his native New York City.
Lone Women centers on Adelaide Henry, a 30-something Black farmer who’s forced to leave California in 1915 after a brutal tragedy claims her parents. She sets out for Big Sandy, Mont., to seize her own plot of land, lugging a supernatural secret behind her in a locked trunk. When she reaches Montana, Adelaide meets and befriends a diverse group of women also hoping to establish themselves outside the shackles of their personal histories. For all of them, as savvy readers might suspect, the past comes to call—sometimes violently.
“Some of the most prominent cultural products you see today are playing with horror, whether it’s Jordan Peele or American Horror Story or the Purge movies,” says Chris Jackson, the publisher of One World and LaValle’s editor for nearly 20 years. “Horror is an incredibly effective way of dissecting the American psyche. The thing I love about Victor is that the heart of his work is always deeply, deeply human. He finds, in the American margins, the heroes who deliver us from our nightmares.”
Indeed, LaValle’s work is teeming with monsters, and with characters who must either defeat or learn to live with them. Some of that is a matter of taste (“I love a good monster,” he concedes) and some of it is a deliberate attempt to Trojan horse hyper-personal concerns into his fiction. By dressing difficult parts of his own life in a bogeyman’s clothing, LaValle is able to write what he knows without drawing too much blood.
“In my first novel, I wrote about my family in a way that was very direct, and my family was very upset with me—and they were right to be,” LaValle admits. That book, 2003’s The Ecstatic (a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist), follows a thinly veiled author surrogate named Anthony as he returns home to Queens after getting expelled from Cornell and gawks at the dysfunction all around him. It’s the last piece of straight-up realism LaValle ever published. Its follow-up, 2010’s Big Machine, is a supernatural crime thriller, and each of his subsequent releases has employed a laundry list of creepy-crawlies to haunt, challenge, or seduce his protagonists.
In the case of Lone Women, LaValle wanted to zero in on familial shame—an aim he makes explicit from the opening line. After an epigraph from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, he gets right to it: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it.” LaValle hints that the central monster, which Adelaide physically lugs behind her across the West, is inspired by a close relative, and that he approached the novel in part as an exercise in empathy for that person.
“I think the first impulse sometimes when writing can be to write a story where the main character is the innocent and the world has done them wrong,” LaValle says. He has little use for that formula. “I’m getting older. I need to interrogate the narrative I have about being the ‘healthy brother,’ the one who is on top of things—taking on those responsibilities but also feeling resentment for those responsibilities. Focusing on that resentment is a really convenient way to not turn and ask the other person, ‘How are you doing?’ ”
It’s heavy stuff, and for the first time, LaValle put more than just a monster between himself and the subject matter: Lone Women is the author’s only foray into historical fiction, and thus marks his first time excavating histories he didn’t invent or experience firsthand. He did heaps of research to prepare for the task, supplementing primary sources from women homesteaders with historical texts about Black Americans in the West from the 17th to early 20th centuries. And then, taking a page from his favorite works of historical fiction like Beloved and Blood Meridian, he threw most of it out the window.
What LaValle finds compelling about those novels, he says, is the way they overlay the past on the present so thinly that you can see the present peeking through. Rather than make its setting a spectacle of funny clothes and backwards customs, Lone Women delivers a 1915 in which people sometimes swear like it’s 2022 and seek the same kind of gender parity and racial harmony that anyone with a Twitter account is no doubt familiar with. In lesser hands, the effect might be anachronistic; in LaValle’s, it’s enlightening.
“Everything we’re wrestling with now has always been wrestled with by human beings,” LaValle says, explaining his choice to lean contemporary with characters’ diction and weave in certain issues of gender best left unspoiled. “The conceit of the present is always that this is the first time we’re dealing with whatever issue. And of course, the point of reading history is to know that that’s not true.”
What’s the point, then, of reading Victor LaValle? “If anything, I hope this book will inspire people to dig deeper into the history of wherever they’re from, because I promise it’s much more complicated than many people might realize,” he says. “Then maybe they write about that, and I get to learn from them. To me, that’s the greatest thing.”
Conner Reed is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He is the former culture editor of Portland Monthly magazine, and his work has appeared in Artforum and Jacobin.
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