Lone Women by Victor LaValle horror book reviewsLone Women by Victor LaValle horror book reviewsLone Women by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s Lone Women (2023) is brilliant. It’s about connections, family, secrets, guilt and love. Yes, there is a monster in it. Yes, it is suspenseful, and yes, it is gory, and those are both horror trademarks, but Lone Women is filled with hidden history and restored triumphs. Is it horror? That depends on your definition of “monster.”

In 1915, Adelaide Henry flees her family farm in Lucerne Valley, California. She leaves behind a burning farmhouse and her two dead parents; she takes with her a locked steamer trunk and a suffocating burden of guilt.

Adelaide, 32, is Black, female and single. She heads to Montana, where she has read that “lone women” can homestead. Her information is based on one magazine article she read. Her homestead tract is beyond the growing town of Big Sandy, where Mrs. Reed is a beacon of feminism and boosterism; she is a suffragist, she and her husband were instrumental in the building of the Big Sandy opera house, a large gaslit structure whose pilot light is a literal beacon in the story.

On her way to her homestead tract, Adelaide shares a wagon with Mrs. Mudge and her four sons, all of whom are blind. Mrs. Mudge makes Adelaide uncomfortable, but she can’t put her finger on the reason why. (There are so many reasons, really.) The weight of Adelaide’s steamer trunk slows down the journey and they stop overnight at a derelict hotel in a ghost town. When Adelaide awakes, the trunk has been tampered with (but not opened) and the Mudges are gone. It is not, however, the last Adelaide will see of them.

LaValle did lots of research about homesteading in Montana and the involvement of Black women. Even without the spine-chilling wrongness of the trunk and its contents, this book would be fascinating. Adelaide is no stranger to hard work, but she is unprepared for the distances and the Montana weather, as winter comes on. Fortunately, her nearest neighbor Mrs. Price and her son Sam visit, and Mrs. Price decides Adelaide’s all right. She helps her out, and gradually, Adelaide is included in the homestead community, including an invitation to a dance. There, she sees Mrs. Mudge again, but the woman doesn’t recognize Adelaide and says her name is Morrison.

The next morning, the group discovers several horses have been stolen.

Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle

Adelaide may be isolated on her homestead, but she is far from alone, and the thing trapped in the trunk is growing restive. A moment’s carelessness on her part allows it to escape once, threatening to uncover Adelaide’s secret. Adelaide recaptures it and thinks she is safe, but events out in the wild and in Big Sandy will converge all too soon, leaving her no safety. Grace Price and Sam are attacked by robbers, none other than the Mudge clan—all four of the boys can see just fine. Adelaide helps the Prices and makes the acquaintance of Bertie Brown, one of the few other Black homesteading women. In Big Sandy, the polished, accomplished Mrs. Reed demonstrates that her interest in equality for women only extends to women of a certain skin tone. The vicious side of her husband’s business interests is revealed. Adelaide is attacked by the Mudges—and the thing in the trunk escapes for good.

LaValle’s prose is exquisite. He often employs an oral-history or story-telling voice. This immediacy brings the harsh homesteading world to life. Characters are complicated, with motives that are layered and sometimes contradictory. After Adelaide herself, the character I found the most complex and compelling was the boy Joab.

If Adelaide’s story were only the achievement of “proving out” a homestead, this would have been a great book. With the addition of a monster, whose connection to Adelaide is tighter than she wants to admit, it becomes a brilliant one, filled with hidden history, poetry and tension. What makes someone a monster? Can a monster be redeemed? Several characters in the book should ask themselves those questions.

Late in the book the appearance of two characters seemed unnecessary and baffling. They help Adelaide find the creature she kept in the trunk… but did they need to? Like it or not, Adelaide is connected to the thing she kept in the trunk. The new characters provide the reader with a tidbit of info, but I’m not convinced the story needed it. I’m especially not convinced because there is a passage at the end of the book with Adelaide and the character Elizabeth that covers everything we needed to know. This, however, is a quibble.

I loved Lone Women. In his afterword, LaValle lists several books about women homesteaders, specifically Black women homesteaders in Montana, and I’m going to buy at least two of them. This may be a story about monstrosity, family, guilt and love, but it’s also about the way history gets erased. Lone Women shows us how we put it back.

Published in 2023. Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk opens, people around Adelaide start to disappear. The year is 1915, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, forcing her to flee California in a hellfire rush and make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will become one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can tame it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing that will help her survive the harsh territory. Crafted by a modern master of magical suspense, Lone Women blends shimmering prose, an unforgettable cast of adventurers who find horror and sisterhood in a brutal landscape, and a portrait of early-twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen. And at its heart is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—or redeem it.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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