Benefits of Homesteading
Living a self-sufficient lifestyle is empowering. It can bring families closer together, reduce stress, and even help you prepare for a possible future where society and the electric grid disappear.
But it is not an easy path. And a lot of mistakes will be made along the way. But it’s important to remember that these failures are what will shape your character.
The new novel by Victor LaValle begins in Southern California — and its inspiration started in the Golden State, too.
The author’s “Lone Women,” published on March 28 by One World/Random House, follows Adelaide, a 31-year-old woman living in San Bernardino County’s Lucerne Valley in 1915 with her parents. The Henry clan, known for their plums, is one of 27 Black farming families in the area. As the novel opens, Adelaide is pouring gasoline throughout the house, including in the bedroom where her parents lay dead in their bed.
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She has a plan to leave California behind forever, and take what little she owns to Big Sandy, Montana, where she’ll claim a homestead and make a life of her own. She takes with her a heavy steamer trunk that she guards closely, and it soon becomes apparent why: the chest contains something dangerous that has a taste for blood.
Once in Montana, Adelaide has to reckon with the force that she’s brought to Big Sandy, as well as with the Mudges, a family of violent grifters determined to make her life hell. She has some allies, including Grace and Sam Price, a mother and son living nearby; Bertie Brown, a brewer and the only other Black woman in Big Sandy; and Fiona Wong, a Chinese American laundry worker. But they’ve got their work cut out for them.
The town of Big Sandy is a real place and boasts a population of about 600. In a telephone conversation from his home in New York, LaValle said he might never have heard of it had it not been for a road trip he took when he was preparing to leave Oakland, where he lived for two years as a visiting professor at Mills College.
“I had just bought my first car,” he recalls. “I had to get back to New York, and I had two choices. I could drive south, but it was the summer and the air conditioner in the car didn’t work. So I knew I was going north.”
That led him through “astoundingly beautiful” Montana, where he spied a road sign for Big Sandy, and the name stayed with him. Years later, he went back to Big Sky Country for an event at the University of Montana in Missoula and found himself in the local history section of the campus bookstore.
One title caught his eye: “Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own,” edited by Sarah Carter. “The book is great,” he says. “It’s got excerpts from people’s journals and a lot of historical research. It’s a blend of all these things. And I became fascinated with these women, and impressed by them.”
That book led to many others, and then to more research with LaValle combing the archives of the Big Sandy Historical Society and issues of an old newspaper called the Bear Paw Mountaineer, where he learned that Chouteau County had residents of varying backgrounds: Black, Chinese, Japanese, Native, and Latino.
With the idea of a Montana that he hadn’t expected in mind, he came up with Adelaide, who was also inspired by members of his own family.
“She’s like my mother and grandmother, who came from Uganda to New York,” he says. “They had absolutely no connections. They were, by and large, some of the first Ugandans to be living in New York. That kind of boldness and bravery was something I started pouring into Adelaide, as a way for me to love her, to admire her.”
While LaValle is no stranger to horror and fantasy — his books like “The Ballad of Black Tom” and “The Changeling” incorporated the genres — writing a western was new to him. But he was definitely familiar with art set in the Old West.
“My uncle loved, loved, loved John Wayne westerns,” LaValle says. “He never went out west; his idea of it was entirely shaped by the westerns he’d been watching when he was a young man in Uganda. So in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, he’d sit me down on a Saturday, and we’d watch his VHS collection of John Wayne’s stuff.”
His uncle knew his history, though, and cautioned LaValle to take what he saw with a grain of salt.
“In the middle of the movies, he’d say, ‘You know, all of this is [nonsense]. This is not how it went. You see all those Native Americans? Those are all White dudes,’” recalls LaValle. “He loved the movies, but he also criticized them. As I got older, I felt like, ‘OK, I’m able to appreciate what’s there, but not pretend this is actual history.”
And then there are the Mudges, Adelaide’s antagonists, who refuse to leave her alone, tormenting, threatening and stealing from her. LaValle says he feels some sympathy for them, though he admits that they’re based on “the worst neighbors my family and I ever had.”
“As bad as the Mudges are, they are still, at heart, a single mother taking care of four boys in 1915,” he says. “And no matter how terrible they became, I could never forget that whatever choices they were making, at least at some earlier stage in their lives, must have just been about the desperate hope to survive, and for this mother to take care of these four boys.”
“Lone Women” isn’t the only project that LaValle is excited about these days. The author’s 2017 horror/fantasy novel “The Changeling,” about a bookseller who goes in search of his missing wife and son, is being adapted into a series by Apple TV+, with San Bernardino native LaKeith Stanfield set to star.
C Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills Is Gold?” and Anna North’s “Outlawed”) feature characters who aren’t just White men.
“I’ll look forward to the day when characters like Adelaide, when characters who are Black women, White women, Chinese women, make people say, ‘Oh, another one of those,’” he says. “I’ll look forward to the day when people are tired of that. But in the meantime, I was really happy that I got to tell this kind of story.”