Lone Women

A Novel

Paperback

February 6, 2024 | ISBN 9780525512103

Hardcover

March 28, 2023 | ISBN 9780525512080

Ebook

March 28, 2023 | ISBN 9780525512097

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Blue skies, empty land—and enough wide-open space to hide a horrifying secret. A woman with a past, a mysterious trunk, a town on the edge of nowhere, and an “absorbing, powerful” (BuzzFeed) new vision of the American West, from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

“Propulsive . . . LaValle combines chills with deep insights into our country’s divides.”—Los Angeles Times


ONE OF BOOKPAGE'S TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR • FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, Time, NPR, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Esquire, Vulture, Paste, Tordotcom, Book Riot, Polygon, Chicago Public Library, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal


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.
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Praise for Lone Women

“Enthralling . . . The combination of LaValle’s agile prose, the velocity of the narrative and the pleasure of upended expectations makes this book almost impossible to put down . . . Lone Women deftly weaves history, horror, suspense and the perspectives of those rarely recorded in the West.”The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)

“Propulsive [with] a fast-paced plot—though I found myself gripped just as much by Adelaide’s defiant, glorious stubbornness and guarded wit. Lone Women combines elements of Western fiction, horror and magical realism, while featuring queer, POC characters inventing lives for themselves in the last years of the American frontier. It’s impossible to categorize and impossible to put down.”NPR, “Books We Love”

“LaValle populates his Western with an array of grotesques, killers, hypocrites, and sinners, but he also makes room for diversity that the genre has too long suppressed. It’s a corrective to the founding myth of America, a book filled with bloodshed and pain, but always holding out for the hope of a happy ending.”—Esquire, “Best Horror Books of 2023”

“LaValle gets coy in Lone Women, teasing us by trickling details that gradually reveal Adelaide’s intricate connection to the creature. Meanwhile, he adroitly intertwines the eerie fairy tale with early 20th-century historical realism.”The Washington Post

“A blend of historical fiction and horror that you won’t be able to put down.”—The Root

Hold your breath as you read, but LaValle has built a brutal and compelling portrait of early-twentieth-century America that may just keep you up at night.”Chicago Review of Books

“In his new book, Lone Women, author Victor LaValle transports readers to the desolate plains of 1915 Montana . . . though it’s set more than a century ago, this eerie story of a haunted would-be homesteader cobbling together a life she doesn’t want to escape from feels both prescient and modern.”—ESSENCE

“If you haven’t read a LaValle novel, prepare to stock up. LaValle combines chills with deep insights into our country’s divides.”Los Angeles Times

“[A] tense horror novel that’ll have you flipping pages faster than you can say ‘keep the lights on’ . . . Lone Women is must-read fiction.”Reader’s Digest

“Victor LaValle is one of the best . . . and Lone Women is an absolute page turner. It’s a tale of hardship and strength and community, but also of the creeping quiet of the American Midwest, of loneliness, and the hauntings we cannot rid ourselves of.”Tordotcom

Lone Women is a searing and unsettling mixture of historical detail, Western imagery, and terrifying twists and turns, from an author who continues to reinvent horror with every page.”CrimeReads

“Highly recommended for historical fiction readers just as much as die-hard horror fans.”Vulture

“LaValle’s work is always darkly magical, suspenseful and deeply compelling. . . . [In] Lone Women . . . expect richness, surprise and beauty from this visionary new rendering of the historic American West.”Salon

“The novel is, in a word, delightful, and whether or not it is the first Victor LaValle book you pick up, it most certainly won’t be your last.”—LitReactor

“Let me tell you this about Victor LaValle: he is a man we can trust. I won’t give anything else away, but I will say that I loved the ending. Two thumbs up.”—Emma Straub

“An expert at suspense, LaValle is at his best in the American West’s untamed wilds.”—People

“[A]  tightly written horror novel . . . This is such an absorbing, powerful horror novel with one of the best endings I’ve read in a while.”—Buzzfeed

“Some books, special books, have a narrative style that grab the reader by the throat while whispering the words of angels in the ear . . . Lone Women [is] such a fine read, one that will stick in readers’ memories long after the book is closed.”Cemetery Dance

“The author of The Changeling transforms genre in an arresting blend of history, horror, and suspense, showcasing a Black woman’s odyssey through the American West at the beginning of the 20th century.”—Oprah Daily
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Excerpt

Lone Women

1

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it. On Tuesday, Adelaide Henry would’ve called herself the former, but by Wednesday she wasn’t as sure. If she was trying to live, then why would she be walking through her family’s farmhouse carrying an Atlas jar of gasoline, pouring that gasoline on the kitchen floor, the dining table, dousing the settee in the den? And after she emptied the first Atlas jar, why go back to the kitchen for the other jar, then climb the stairs to the second floor, listening to the splash of gasoline on every step? Was she planning to live, or trying to die?

There were twenty-seven Black farming families in California’s Lucerne Valley in 1915. Adelaide and her parents had been one of them. After today there would only be twenty-six.

Adelaide reached the second-floor landing. She hardly smelled the gasoline anymore. Her hands were covered in fresh wounds, but she felt no pain. There were two bedrooms on the second floor: her bedroom and her parents’.

Adelaide’s parents were lured west by the promise of land in this valley. The federal government encouraged Americans to homestead California. The native population had been decimated, cleared off the property. Now it was time to give it all away. This invitation was one of the few that the United States extended to even its Negro citizens, and after 1866, the African Society put out a call to “colonize” Southern California. The Henrys were among the hundreds who came. They weren’t going to get a fair shot in Arkansas, that was for damn sure. The federal government called this homesteading.

Glenville and Eleanor Henry fled to California and grew alfalfa and wild grass, sold it to cattle owners for feed. Glenville studied the work of Luther Burbank and in 1908 they began growing the botanist’s Santa Rosa plums. To Adelaide the fruit tasted of sugar and self-determination. Adelaide had worked the orchards and fields alongside her daddy since she was twelve. Labored in the kitchen and the barn with her mother for even longer. Thirty-one years of life on this farm. Thirty-one.

And now she would burn it all down.

“Ma’am?”

Adelaide startled at the sound of the wagon man.

“Good Lord, what is that smell?”

He stood at the front entrance, separated from the interior by a screen door and nothing more. Adelaide stood upstairs, at the threshold of her parents’ bedroom. The half-full Atlas jar wobbled in her grip. She turned and called over the landing.

“Mr. Cole, I will be out in five minutes.”

She couldn’t see him, but she heard him. The grumble of an old Black man, barely audible but somehow still as loud as a thunderclap. It reminded her of her father.

“That’s what you said five minutes ago!”

Adelaide heard the creak of the screen door’s springs. A vision flashed before her: Mr. Cole coming to the foot of the stairs and Adelaide dumping the remaining gasoline right onto his head; Adelaide reaching for the matches that were in her pocket; lighting one and dropping it right onto Mr. Cole. Then, combustion.

But she didn’t want to kill this old man, so she called out to him instead.

“Have you got my trunk into the wagon yet?” she called.

Quiet, quiet.

Then the sigh of the screen door being released. He hadn’t stepped inside. He called to her again from the porch.

“I tried,” he said. “But that thing weighs more than my damn horse. What did you pack inside?”

My whole life, she thought. Everything that still matters.

She looked to the door of her parents’ bedroom, then called down one more time.

“Five minutes, Mr. Cole. We’ll get the trunk in the wagon together.”

Another grumble but he didn’t curse her and she didn’t hear the sound of his wagon’s wheels riding off. For a man like Mr. Cole, that was as close to an “okay” as she was going to get.

Would she really have set him on fire? She couldn’t say. But it’s startling what people will do when they are desperate.

Adelaide Henry turned the handle to her parents’ bedroom and stepped inside and shut the door behind her and stood in the silence and the dark. The heavy curtains were pulled shut. She’d done that at dawn. After she’d dragged the bodies of Glenville and Eleanor inside and put them to bed.

They lay together now, in their marriage bed. The same place where Adelaide had been conceived. They were only shapes, because she’d thrown a sheet over their corpses. Their blood had soaked through. The outline of their bodies appeared as red silhouettes.

She went to her father’s side. The fabric had adhered to his skin when the blood dried. She’d pulled the sheet up over his head. Better that way. She didn’t want to see what remained of him. She poured gasoline over his corpse, from his forehead to his feet.

Now Adelaide moved round to her mother’s side.

She’d pulled Eleanor’s side of the sheets up only to her chin, hiding the damage done to her throat. She hadn’t felt able to pull the shroud over her mother entirely. Strange to get squeamish about that part considering all the other damage done to Eleanor’s body. Adelaide tilted the jar above her mother’s head but found she couldn’t pour out the last of the fuel. She held it over Eleanor and stared into her mother’s opened, empty eyes.

She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She set the jar down and crouched by the bed. She whispered into Eleanor’s dead ear.

“You kept too many secrets,” Adelaide said. “Look what it cost you.”

With that, she rose and reached into her pocket. The matchbox bore the symbol of the African Society, a silhouette of a Black man driving a plow. She struck a match and watched it burn. She flung it at the bed, where it landed on her father.

She turned quickly so she wouldn’t have to see the bodies catch, but she heard it. As if the whole room took a single deep breath. An instant later she felt heat across her scalp and neck, but when she stepped out of the room the flames still licked at her skin. She realized it hadn’t been the fire that burned at her but the guilt.

On the upstairs landing her right knee buckled and she nearly went down. Kneeling with one hand on the railing. She’d done it. Behind that door her parents were burning. Maybe she should stay with them. That’s what she considered. Enough gasoline had spilled on her hands, her dress, that it wouldn’t take long for her to burn. Step back inside the bedroom and kneel at the foot of their bed and be engulfed. End the family line. That’s what she deserved. What kind of daughter would do the things she’d done in the last twenty-four hours? A foul and terrible daughter.

Soon Adelaide rose to her feet but hardly recognized she’d done it. As if her body wanted her to survive even if her soul felt differently. She rose and put one foot forward. Then the next. She’d be leaving, it seemed. Who decided that? she wondered, even as she held the railing and descended the stairs.

“Well, there you are,” Mr. Cole said when she stepped out from the screen door. He looked from her to the house. Did he see smoke yet? Could he hear the upstairs bedroom walls starting to crackle?

His buckboard wagon sat by the porch; horse nearly as malnourished as the man. Adelaide stood six inches taller than Mr. Cole and outweighed him by forty pounds. No wonder he couldn’t lift the trunk.

There were handles on either side of the Seward steamer trunk. Adelaide grabbed one end and Mr. Cole took the other. She bent her legs and lifted. Mr. Cole huffed with the strain.

“Quick now,” he said. Though he wasn’t doing much work, he still felt happy to give commands.

She yanked the trunk toward the bed of the wagon and Mr. Cole was pulled along.

They reached the wagon and with one last effort they set it down in the bed. The wagon sank inches and all four wooden wheels creaked. Mr. Cole’s horse took a step forward as if trying to flee the burden. When they stood straight both Mr. Cole and Adelaide were breathless.

Adelaide climbed into the wagon. The only other item she’d brought—besides that trunk—was her travel bag. It had been packed already, sitting right at the threshold inside the house. Mr. Cole got in beside her on the spring seat.

About the Author

Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle is the author of six previous works of fiction: three novels, two novellas, and a collection of short stories. His novels have been included in best-of-the-year lists by The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Nation, and Publishers Weekly, among others. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Key to Southeast Queens. He lives in New York City with his wife and kids and teaches at Columbia University. More by Victor LaValle
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