There’s nowhere to hide in Victor LaValle’s ‘Lone Women’

Books

It’s been six years since Victor LaValle published his acclaimed modern fairy tale, The Changeling. Now the author returns with another fantastical story that could only take place in America. Set in 1914 Montana, Lone Women follows Black homesteader Adelaide Henry, who, after the mysterious death of her parents, flees her home in California with only an extremely heavy, firmly locked steamer trunk in tow.

Montana is nearly a character in and of itself in Lone Women—both the initial, utopian vision of it in Adelaide’s imagination and its stark, harsh reality. What drew you to Montana, and especially to its winters?
This whole book began with a work of nonfiction called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own, edited by Dr. Sarah Carter. I came across the book after I did a reading at the University of Montana. I bought a book of local history because I wanted to better understand some aspect of the place I’d just been.

The book is a great overview of the women who traveled to Montana to homestead land at the start of the 20th century. I’d never known they existed! Even more surprising? When I found out this phenomenon wasn’t only reserved for white women. There were some Black women homesteaders. There were a few Latina women, too. There was a good-sized Chinese population in the state at the time, but they were not legally allowed to homestead because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to make any kind of immigration to America “illegal.” Before that, anyone who could make it here was welcome. This was all fascinating, so I only dove into more and more of this history. At first I was reading simply to educate myself, but eventually I realized I was doing research for a novel.

“A woman like Adelaide . . . is usually edited out of the official history.”

The historical details in the book, from what it was like to stake a claim to the growth of opera in the American West, make it feel incredibly concrete. What was your research process like?
As I say, it all began with Dr. Carter’s book, but after that I went on a tear, following my curiosity. I read books by homesteading women (their journals) and histories of homesteading across the state. I read a great deal about the Black experience in the West, a history I admit—sadly—I knew very little about. I spent a few years just reading and making notes. Altogether, I’m sure only about a quarter of what I learned made it into my novel. I wanted it to be enough that the world felt concrete but not so much that the reader was pulled out of the story. It’s my hope that I found the right balance.

The maxim that history is simple but the past is complex appears multiple times in Lone Women. How did this idea influence the way you created Adelaide’s story?
That phrase, that idea, came to me at some point in my research experience. There was so much I thought I understood about this place and time, but the more I read, the more I understood the past simply couldn’t be summarized by the kinds of texts we’re given in, say, high school or in our popular entertainment. History has to make choices of some kind, right? You can’t include everything. But what gets left out, and why? That’s what I really wanted to get at. A woman like Adelaide—and the other lone women at the heart of my novel—is usually edited out of the official history. The gift of being a novelist is that I can, in my small way, write them back in.

Why do you think the Henrys chose to keep their burden rather than be rid of it?
I wanted to tackle this question in the most honest way I could. Why does any family accept the burdens placed on them? To take a step back, I wondered how and why a family decides that something, or someone, is a burden rather than a gift. I know there are families that split apart and never speak to one another again, but my own experience is that family pushes and pulls at one another; we grow weary but we are also bound by history and love. In this sense, I imagined the Henrys were like so many of us.

Read our starred review of ‘Lone Women’ by Victor LaValle.

The Mudges, a family Adelaide encounters multiple times in Montana, are at once irredeemable and intensely compelling. Did you have any particular inspiration for that family?
The Mudges were inspired by some particularly awful neighbors we had when I was a teenager growing up in Queens, New York. I knew them as a general nuisance, but I was a teenager so I didn’t pay them too much mind. They were a particular problem for my mother though, because she had to deal with all the ways the mother of that family made life harder for my mom. They have become a bit of a family legend: the worst neighbors we have ever known. Their name has become shorthand between my mother, sister and I whenever we want to explain a particularly awful person we encounter. I poured all that feeling into the Mudges because, with time, I realized those neighbors may have been terrible, but they sure were memorable.

In recent years, your oeuvre has expanded to include comic books. How is your process different as you move from medium to medium? How does it stay the same?
At heart, I’m trying to tell stories that tackle ideas that matter to me at the time I’m writing them. My hope is that my concerns are, at least in part, concerns that others have as well. My comics tackle questions of climate change and police brutality, just as my novels wrestle with questions of history, of love and guilt. The biggest difference is that my words in the comics are accompanied by brilliant and beautiful artwork. At the very least, even if you hate the writing, the images will give you something to love.

Lone Women is in many ways a very intimate book, and it feels claustrophobic despite its vast Montana landscape. Was that juxtaposition something that was present from the beginning? What did that contrast reveal for you as a writer? 
I’m glad this feeling came through. I hoped the reader would experience the landscape as a grand and open arena, but, of course, Adelaide is trapped no matter where she goes. Adelaide is stuck inside her family history, and her role within that history, and whether she’s in Montana or California or even on the moon, she’ll stay stuck until she faces the truths of her history with all honesty. It’s only then that she might have the chance to breathe deep and inhale new, fresher air.

Photo of Victor LaValle by Teddy Wolff.

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