For a nation that struggles so to free its boots from the sinking, stinking muck of its own history, it's odd to think that reinvention was the core of the USA's founding. The great allure of westward expansion was, at the cost of civilized comforts, the freedom to remake oneself in whatever way you wanted. But one of the great faults of that country is how they handle the baggage of their own past. They continue to seek out fresh starts, but inevitably sully any freshness with those aforementioned boots.
Baggage is very much at the centre of Victor LaValle's new novel, Lone Women. As Adelaide Henry begins a fire in her parents' bedroom, which happens to contain the lifeless bodies of her parents, she struggles to load a weighty steamer trunk into her hired coach before the conflagration within becomes obvious from without. She drags her burden first to the coast of California, where she boards a ship bound for Seattle, and then again onto a Montana-bound train, and then on yet another coach to the new town of Big Sandy. It's 1915, and the federal government was giving away plots of land for homesteading, provided a "person"--"the wording was vitally vague," important for Addie, a black woman--make it habitable over the course of three years. It's on the still wild outskirts of Big Sandy that, as a "Lone Woman," Adelaide hopes to start fresh. But what chance does she have, truly, when the only thing she's brought with her is this single enormous burden?
To reveal much more would be to spoil Lone Women. It's enough to say that LaValle doesn't over tease the mystery of Addie's trunk. Nor does he simplify the meaning of its contents. LaValle proves and strengthens his reputation as one of our finest "literary genre writers" in his handling of this baggage. When the steamer trunk is closed, its metaphor--Addie's baggage, right, got it--is likewise contained, and simplified. But once unlocked, the lid lifted, the contents loosed, the import complicates, skirting simplicity until the very end. It's a pleasure to read an author in such total, deft control of their story.
"This land is trying to kill every single one of us," Addie is warned by the coach driver delivering her to her new home, "let me tell you. And we keep each other alive. Your neighbors might not all welcome you, but I promise they will help you if you need it. Because they will need you to help them eventually. For better or worse, that's the best I can give you."
In its staunch myths of both creation and recreation, the US has always struggled to reconcile the expansions of an individual with the expansion of a greater community. This is the tension of values that, for instance, Paul Auster located at the root of the gun debate in his recent book American Bloodshed. What LaValle page-turningly dramatizes in Lone Women, though, is that it's near impossible to remake yourself as an individual in any lasting way. We all have stains in our cloths, or mysteries in our steamer trunks, that hinder true progress or change. Baggage such as Addie's is far too heavy for her to move on her own. It's within communities, rather, and with the help of a community, that significant reinvention has its best chance of success.