by Victor LaValle
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 4, 2023
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"There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it." The main character in this book once thought of herself as the former, but now she's not so sure.
Adelaide Henry is a thirty-one year old black woman living with her parents on their farm in Lucerne Valley, California in 1915. Or I should say she had been living with them. On the first page, in the first paragraph, she is dousing their farmhouse with gasoline, including their bodies in their upstairs bedroom. She had already contracted with a man to take her and her belongings to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, where she would board a ship to Seattle, and from there take a train ride to Big Sandy, Montana. In Seattle she purchased a plot of land near Big Sandy, in accordance with a Montana ordinance which would grant her full deed to the property if she lived on and developed (proved up) the land for three years. It was fortunate the ordinance only mentioned that a 'person' had to prove up the property, no mention of it having to be a man, or a family. There was already a small shack and a well on the property, from the previous person who was unable to prove up. What was brought up from the well was heavily alkaline, so she was forced to walk several miles to a creek for water. Her belongings included a large rucksack, and a padlocked steamer trunk. Inside the trunk was what Adelaide thought of as her 'curse.'
That curse is described in different ways at different times, the first being that it was something demonic which came to their house at the same moment that Adelaide was born. After that, the 'thing' was kept hidden in the barn, although it occasionally broke out. Thus the Henrys were reclusive, and had a reputation of being 'queer folk,' the older definition of queer, meaning strange and mysterious, maybe even dangerous. At the Big Sandy train depot Adelaide paid another man to carry her and her trunk to her property, along with a woman and four boys heading to their own plot. That family disappears the first night after a stopover at an old, abandoned hotel in a dead town. The next morning Adelaide finds her trunk unlocked, although she is sure what she is carrying is still inside. She wasn't about to open it in front of the wagon driver. Even after we learn more about the thing in the trunk, it is described in different ways by different people, and it proves to have powers and abilities of which Adelaide had previously been unaware. Some might say it was a monster, a demon, but as in a lot of horror stories we have learned that not all monsters look like monsters on the outside. Some can be pillars of the community.
I'll refrain from any more of the plot, except to mention how it is both an alternate history, as well as an examination of women alone, and not just black women, although Adelaide becomes good friends with another lone black woman, who is historical. Bertie Brown was born in Missouri but later ended up in Montana. It doesn't matter whether she was a widow as she claimed or not. What matters is she was independent enough to establish herself as a business woman. Google tells me one of the things in this book is true, that she was known for her moonshine whiskey. She may have also run a brothel, or that might be fictional, and so might be her relationship with one of her girls, Fiona Wong. Big Sandy is a real town, but mostly fictionalized here. Along with the mysterious nature of Adelaide's curse, there is at least one other supernatural scene, with Fiona and Bertie visiting the ghost town of Glendale, a real place that had been a thriving community built around a silver mine. In this book the designation of ghost town is literal, not meaning only abandoned.
LaValle's afterword reveals he got the idea after attending a reading conference in Missoula, and his disovery of several Montana histories, which included things even long time residents of the area were not aware. He originally wrote about Adelaide and [REDACTED] in a short story of the same title, in a now out of print anthology, used copies of which fetch a steep price. One of these days I'd like to read that story, along with the others in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which isn't even available from its publisher, and was never released as an ebook. One thing you can say about some characters, even those you might not like, is that they did what they had to do, they did the best they could considering their circumstances. You don't have to approve of what Adelaide did in order to appreciate her strength and resolve, and her loyalty to something she would say she would have rather lived without. But she and her burden, and Bertie and Fiona, along with several other lone women, congregate later in Glendale to forge a new life. I won't tell you what they rename the town, that would be a spoiler. With each new resident came the same refrain, "I've been looking for this place."
This is a book you should be looking for. Highly recommended.
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