Soon to be a Major Motion Picture Starring Emmy Award Winner and Oscar Nominee Viola Davis; "An eye-opening look at the little-explored area of a black frontier woman in the American West." Chicago Sun-Times
Praised by Alice Walker and many other bestselling writers, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is an award-winning debut novel with incredible heart about life on the prairie as it's rarely been seen. Reminiscent of The Color Purple, as well as the frontier novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, it opens a window on the little-known history of African American homesteaders and gives voice to an extraordinary heroine who embodies the spirit that built America.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Ann Weisgarber was longlisted for the Orange Prize, was a finalist for the Orange Award for New Writers, and won the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. She holds a master’s degree in sociology and has worked as a social worker and has taught high school and college. Born and raised in Kettering, Ohio, she has also lived in Boston and Des Moines and now divides her time between Sugar Land and Galveston, Texas, the setting of her novel The Promise, about a woman living through the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900.
Read an Excerpt
Isaac's mother, Mrs. Elizabeth DuPree, owner of the DuPree Boardinghouse for Negro Men in Chicago, had standards. She took only the men what worked the day shift at the slaughterhouses. She said they were a better class than the ones what worked nights. No drinking, no swearing, no women visitors in the rooms - those were a few of Mrs. DuPree's rules.
"My responsibility is to do my part in advancing the respectability of hardworking Negroes," she told the men when she collected the rent every Saturday. "We've got to be as good, even a little better, than white folks if we're ever going to get ahead."
That was how Mrs. DuPree talked.
The men listened to her, showing their respect by nodding when Mrs. DuPree fixed them with a sharp look. What they said, though, when she wasn't around, was that they stayed on, paid the extra dollar on the week, and put up with her fancy standards all
because of the fine meals I cooked. Not that Mrs. DuPree would admit to that. She was forever pointing out that her boardinghouse was the cleanest in the city. Her house was quality; it was on the far edge of the stockyard district. Quality and cleanliness - that was why her rooms were full. No one said different. The bedclothes were changed every other Monday, and the outhouse shined like a new Indian-head penny. But it was the food the men admired out loud.
Six days a week for nearly eight years, I cooked at Mrs. DuPree's. Every morning, long before dawn, I let myself in the back door, put on a fresh apron, and fired up the coal cookstove. I was at home in that kitchen with its canisters of flour and sugar on the shelf, the coffee grinder bolted to the edge of the wooden counter, and the icebox by the cellar door. In that kitchen that wasn't really mine at all, I baked rows and rows of buttery biscuits. My bacon was crisp, and I fried the eggs until the edges curled up and
browned just a tad. That was how the men liked them. I perked the coffee deep and strong. After breakfast, I sent the men off to the slaughterhouses with ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. When the dishes were washed, I baked my pies, sometimes
butterscotch cream, other times apple or cherry, depending on the season. On Saturdays the men counted on me to make a cake, maybe gingerbread or chocolate or sometimes a white cake.
"What's for dinner, Miss Reeves?" the men asked me most every morning. "Fried chicken or maybe pork? Roast beef?" "That sounds good," I liked to say, teasing. I wasn't going to tell them, and they knew it. Those men hated their work at the
slaughterhouses. They deserved one good surprise in a day's time.
Early evenings, the men showed up in the alley behind the boardinghouse, their shoulders bent and their heads down. They had washed at the slaughterhouses and left their overalls and boots stiff with blood there. But being of a particular nature, Mrs.
DuPree made them wash with soap at the backyard pump before coming inside. I watched them from the kitchen window. In the winter these washings were hurried, the men shaking in the icy wind. In the summer, though, the men scrubbed their hands, faces, and necks hard, doing their best to rid themselves of the animal grease that worked its way into their skin. But even the best scrubbing couldn't clean spirits worn down by the butchering of screaming animals.
I liked to think my dinners perked up the men some. They sat elbow to elbow on the two benches along the dining table and joshed, bragging about having the dirtiest jobs or about having the meanest bosses. This went on until I served their pie. Those men loved pie, but for some reason it changed their talk. Maybe it was because pie made them think about their people back home. Maybe it took them back to when they were boys and how they watched their mamas roll the crust. I didn't know. But when I served pie, the men's voices got deeper and the joshing quieted down.
One of these days, the men said after licking their forks clean, they'd quit their stinking jobs and go back home, cash in their pockets. Looking back, they said, thinking about it now, they weren't sure why they ever left. If someone had told them what it was like in the slaughterhouses, they would have stayed put.
It was the money that brought them to the city, that's what it was. But who could save money in a place like Chicago where nothing was free? Back home, now that was a different story. Neighbors were friendly, bosses were fair, and the girls were the prettiest in the world. Home, the men said, stretching the word long. Home. Someday, they'd go on back home.
I listened to the men while I scrubbed dried-up, crusty pans in the kitchen. This dining-room talk was nothing new. I had been working for Mrs. DuPree since I was seventeen.
When the coffeepot was empty and their plates scraped clean, most of the men went upstairs. Some of them played cards in their rooms or wrote letters home. Others moseyed into the kitchen. I'd come to expect this from the ones what didn't have wives or sweethearts waiting for them in some far-off place like Louisiana or Alabama.
At first, Mrs. DuPree didn't allow the men in the kitchen, but by the time I was twenty-five, she pretended not to notice. Likely she thought I was an old maid and that the men looked at me as nothing more than an older sister. But maybe there was a spot of kindness buried somewhere in her heart. She had a son of her own far away from home. Maybe she understood that a man needed to lean against a kitchen wall. Watching a woman tidy up was good for easing homesickness.
But not all of the men saw me as a sister. Some of them tried to court me.
One particular evening it was Thomas Lee Patterson who spoke up. Four other men ringed the kitchen. "Miss Reeves," he said. "That strawberry pie was right tasty."
"Crust didn't do like it should," I said, drying the last pan.
"Puts my grandma's to shame, it was that good."
"Better not let her hear that."
He grinned, straightened up, and looked at the other men. I felt their eyes telling him to go on, give it a try. I shook my head a little to warn him off . Thomas Lee didn't seem to see. Instead, he took a steadying breath. "What say, Miss Reeves? How about me
walking you on home tonight?"
The air tensed.
"Oh my," I said. I tilted my head, acting like I was considering the offer. But I wasn't. Thomas Lee was as good as the next slaughterhouse man, but that was what he was: a slaughterhouse man. I had lived in the district since I was eleven and knew all there was to know about such men. Dad was one until he slipped and fell in a mess of hog guts and blood, knocking himself senseless for a night and a day. When he came to, his face drooped, his left hand dangled by his side, and one of his legs didn't do like it should. He never was able to work again.
There was something about slaughterhouse work that soured a man; even my mother said so. He could start off all right, but if he stayed more than a year, the work laid him low. Killing animals for a living broke a man's dreams, turned him bitter and mean. Or turned him to drink. That wasn't the kind of man I wanted. I wanted a man what aimed to better himself, what wasn't afraid to look inside a book, and was willing to save his money for something grander than a pint of beer.
Thomas Lee Patterson was a handsome man. But he'd been in the slaughterhouse for nearly three years. He'd never get out.
"Much obliged," I said to him, "but you know my father. Most likely he's out there now, on the stoop, waiting for me." That was because, I could have added, Dad didn't want anybody courting me, he didn't want me getting married. Him and Mama counted on my wages.
"Yes, ma'am, I do. Men back home, that's how they do for their daughters. It's just that your daddy, he drags that leg of his so bad, thought maybe it'd go easier for him if somebody else was seeing to you."
"Where you from, Mr. Patterson?"
"Well then. You're a Southern gentleman just like Dad." I took off my apron and put it in a laundry basket for Trudy, the housemaid, to launder. "Now out of my kitchen," I said, flapping my hands. "All of you. Out."
"But - ," Thomas Lee said.
"Out," I said as if I didn't know his meaning. One of the other men laughed. I shot him a hard look, shushing him. Thomas Lee's head drooped. I stepped close to him, wanting to make him feel better. "It's my father. He's old-fashioned," I whispered, shrugging my shoulders as if to say that otherwise it'd be different. He drew in some air and gave me a quick glance as he left. He didn't believe me but pride kept him from pressing. Pride, I also knew, would keep Thomas Lee out of the kitchen from then on. He'd have to find something else to do to fill the lonesome evening hours, and that made me feel bad. But not bad enough to change my mind.
Alone in the kitchen, I hung up the last frying pan and put the footstool back in the corner. I set the dining table for the morning, and then, after giving the kitchen one last look to make sure everything was in its place, I turned off the electric lights. Outside in the crisp April evening, Dad leaned hard on his cane and heaved himself up off the top step of the back stoop. He tossed his glowing cigarette butt at a rat. He missed.
"Ready?" he said. Then, seeing the cloth sack in my hand, Dad pointed. "Something I like? Fried pork, maybe?"
One afternoon not long after, I was stoking up the cookstove fire, getting it hot enough to bake my bread, when Mrs. DuPree swooped into the kitchen, her round body making the room feel too tight for the both of us. It wasn't like her to bother with me in the middle of the day. Afternoons were when Mrs. DuPree liked to go over her accounts and order supplies for the house. Either that or call on friends, sit in their parlors, sip tea from
fine bone china, and exchange ideas about how best to advance the Negro race.
"Rachel," Mrs. DuPree said that day, "I want you to help Trudy with the cleaning. You'll have to stay late a few evenings."
"Oh," I said, surprised. We'd just done spring cleaning last month.
"My son's coming home. He'll be on leave, expects to be here for several weeks."
My heart fluttered.
Mrs. DuPree waved an opened envelope. She put on her eyeglasses, pulled out the letter, and read it to herself, her lips putting shape to each word. "He's to arrive next Wednesday. That's if the trains run on time." She peered out the kitchen window. Elevated railroad tracks crisscrossed every which way two blocks over. "Still surprises me to think they have trains out there in Nebraska."
"Nebraska," I said, but I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking about Isaac DuPree. I had met him once before when Mrs. DuPree took sick with pneumonia and the doctor declared her on death's doorstep. Isaac rushed home; he was just back from winning the war in Cuba. That had been five years ago. I had given up on ever seeing him again.
Mrs. DuPree pushed her eyeglasses back up and studied the letter like the words might say something new. She was a hard one to know, I thought. Most widows would be smiling with joy to see their only child. But that wasn't Mrs. DuPree's way, at least not in front of the help. But all the same, Mrs. DuPree was excited. Her heartbeat showed in her neck. I hoped my own heartbeat wasn't so easy to read.
"I want this house shining," Mrs. DuPree said, "every pot, every pan, every inch of it shining. Even behind the cookstove. He's been out in the wilderness so long I'm afraid he's forgotten how civilized people live."
"Oh yes, ma'am."
"And I want the food to be good. I'll make up a list of his favorites."
I smiled. "I'll do my best."
"See that you do." She eyed me. My smile was too big to suit her. I made it go away. She said, "Start with the floors - get the marks up. And I want the silver polished and the sideboard waxed." I nodded and she left.
I waited until I couldn't hear her footsteps. Then I drew up my skirt, held it above my ankles, and did a little waltz around the kitchen. Isaac DuPree, I sang to myself. Isaac DuPree was coming home. Coming home.
Reading Group Guide
In 1903, Rachel Reeves was feeding slaughterhouse workers in a Chicago boardinghouse, determined not to marry a slaughterhouse man herself. Then –owner Mrs. Dupree's son returned on leave from his army post in Nebraska, and Rachel found herself smitten with the handsome and ambitious Isaac —he was the son of a doctor and unlike any other men she knew. When Isaac announced his plan to claim his share of land from the Homestead Act in the South Dakota Badlands, making him one of the few African American landowners and ranchers in the region, Rachel knew she couldn't let him leave. She struck a bargain with him: He could take her 160–acre share, too, if he would also marry her and take her with him.
Flash forward twelve years: Rachel and Isaac DuPree have expanded their holdings to 2,500 acres. They now have five children, and one more is on the way. Over the years they have worked hard, building a wooden house on the unforgiving land, raising cattle and growing wheat to sustain themselves. They've even made friends with other homesteaders, some of whom are white. Yet this summer is crueler than any summer in memory, and their farm is crippled by an unrelenting drought. To forage for water, they must send their six–year–old daughter, Liz, down into the well—a dangerous act of desperation that sickens Rachel.
As the summer drags on and Rachel's due date approaches, she fears for their safety amid a hostile climate where food is increasingly scarce, the nearest neighbor is miles away, and African Americans are only slightly more socially integrated than the Native Americans who have been driven into area reservations. Other homesteaders have recently packed up and left, citing the impossible conditions. Rachel longs for home, for her relatively easier life in Chicago, and for the companionship of her family. Worst of all, as a secret from the past unravels, she begins to question the motivations of her beloved husband, and wonders if he really has his family's best interests at heart.
Ann Weisgarber's stunning debut illuminates a fascinating moment in American history, bringing the African American homesteaders' plight to life in unsparing detail. In Rachel DuPree she has created a heroine with great warmth and grit, a mother who fights fiercely for her family's survival. By turns suspenseful and moving, The Personal History of Rachel DuPreeis a powerful novel of emotional depth and historical scope.
ABOUT ANN WEISGARBER
Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio, and now lives in Texas. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is her first novel, and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, was a finalist for the Orange Award for New Writers, and won the Texas Institute of Letters' Award for Best Work of First Fiction.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANN WEISGARBER
Q. This novel captures a slice of history that many Americans know little about. How did you become interested in writing about African American ranchers in South Dakota?
I've always been drawn to the West. During one of my trips to the South Dakota Badlands, I came across a photograph of a woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. Three things about the photo caught my attention. The woman was alone, she was unnamed, and she was African American. Until then, I hadn't been aware of African American settlers in the West. I did some research and discovered there were African American cowboys and soldiers. I dug deeper and found bits and pieces about black pioneer families. The photographed woman must have been one of those people, and it bothered me that history had overlooked her story. I gave her a name, Rachel DuPree, and began to write.
Q. Given that Rachel DuPree or her real–life counterparts are unlikely to be found in textbooks, “personal history” is an apt title for this book. Can you talk about what it means to you?
The title was the inspiration of one of my editors. Initially I wasn't thrilled with it—I was concerned the word "history" might imply the book was nonfiction—but I've grown to love it. The personal details of Rachel DuPree's story are hers alone. Yet her history is shared by many of the forgotten women who bore the hardships of being pioneers.
During my research, I found an African American couple in South Dakota whose names were Isaac and Rachel. I also found another couple whose last name was DuPree. I combined the names to honor those Americans. I did the same for three of the Indian characters. Mrs. Fills the Pipe, Inez, and Luther were the names of people I found while researching the Sioux.
Q. The language in this novel is spare and unadorned, almost reflecting the DuPrees' open, unspoiled stretch of land. As you wrote this book, did the landscape consciously inform your prose style?
I didn't have a choice. The landscape is such a dominant force that everything else feels small and insignificant. My spare language is my reaction to the Badlands' harsh but beautiful landscape. It is my response to its complicated history that is layered with hope and with heartbreak. It also fits Rachel and Isaac, whose determination to achieve better futures for themselves and for their children dominates all other concerns.
The dialogue between Rachel and Isaac is also spare. Their days are spent together; there wouldn't be all that much to discuss. They rely on nonverbal communication. The unspoken is as meaningful as the spoken.
My writing style is somewhat different in the Chicago scenes. The descriptions are more detailed and the dialogue includes longer sentences. That is my way of reflecting Rachel's youth and the busyness of her life in a city.
Q. You capture so many interesting details throughout, from the way Rachel keeps house to the fact that ranchers never eat steak. How did you conduct research for this novel? Did you research before you wrote the story or did you write first and research later?
I researched as I wrote and every page reflects research. I found it impossible to write a scene unless I knew the details were right. The most helpful written resources were children's nonfiction books. The details were well explained and included illustrations. Often the research led to unexpected discoveries. While reading about Chicago and slaughterhouses, I stumbled across Ida B. Wells–Barnett. When I was reading about the Dakota Sioux, I became interested in the children who went to boarding schools and who were then assimilated into the white culture.
I was fortunate to have a writing residency at Badlands National Park. This was a chance to talk to people who lived there. A woman who grew up on a cattle ranch told me she'd never tasted steak until she was in her midtwenties. Another woman said there was more to Native Americans than the stereotypical image of warriors. In some form, much of this information found its way into the book.
Q. Was it challenging to take on the point of view of a young African American woman in the early twentieth century, or did you find that Rachel DuPree's voice came naturally to you?
It was a challenge. I had to step back in time to see the world as people did in 1917. I had to shake off modern ideas about marriage, child rearing, race, and prejudice. I had to learn about 1917 black culture and experiences.
When I started the rough draft, there was one thing I knew for certain about Rachel DuPree. She had dignity. As I worked through each draft, Rachel's voice appeared. Isaac was also difficult, and in the early drafts I didn't feel comfortable with him. Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her daughter, Inez, were other challenges. Native Americans have often been misrepresented in literature as stereotypes. I did not want to do that to these characters.
I wasn't in a rush while writing this novel and that allowed the voices to come to me.
Q. In some ways this is a narrow slice of history, yet the themes you explore are universal. Do you see this book as belonging to a particular literary tradition?
I see the book as literary historical fiction. The themes of commitment, ambition, sacrifice, and prejudice are layered throughout the story. The norms and values of 1917 shape the characters' beliefs and responses, and historical figures, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Ida B. Wells–Barnett, impact the characters.
Q. By the standards of her time and social class, Rachel DuPree is a very independent–minded woman. Do you consider her a feminist?
I don't see Rachel DuPree as a feminist but rather as a woman who understands the norms of her era and works around them. She rarely challenges Isaac's opinions, she doesn't have money of her own, and she's tied to the cookstove and to child–rearing duties. Her defiance of Isaac is indirect. She keeps things to herself and makes her own decisions. During my research, I read diaries written by women. The ability to work around their husbands was a common theme.
Q. Isaac DuPree is a fascinating figure—for all of his blind ambition and callousness he is still charming and, at times, affectionate. How did his character evolve over the course of writing the book?
I'm quite fond of Isaac, although I had to write many drafts before I understood his character. Initially, he kept disappearing off the page because I wasn't sure what to do with him. When I eventually realized he was shaped by his military training and that he was desperate to prove his worth, his character grew. Isaac became a man of his times. He does not discuss feelings or worry about the happiness of his children. He became a man of the West. He is willing to make any sacrifice to keep his land.
Q. You've been a teacher and a social worker. How did these experiences prepare you to be a novelist? How did you decide to pursue writing as a career?
As a social worker and as a teacher, I learned to listen to what was said and what wasn't. My background in sociology pushed me to think about my characters as people of their times. It's natural to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. People don't live in vacuums and nor should characters. Rachel and Isaac are influenced by newspaper headlines as well as by events from the past.
Social class and prejudice are themes I especially like, although it is nerve–racking to write about them. The revelation of ugly prejudices in plain language is not comfortable. I had to remind myself that in 1917 a white woman would call Isaac "boy." I had to remember that in 1917 many people had negative opinions about Native Americans. Rachel and Isaac were not exceptions. I had to write about Native Americans as my characters saw them.
I decided to write a novel simply to see if I could. I didn't think about publication. Rather, I focused on the personal challenge of writing a beginning, a middle, and an end. After a few years of this, my thoughts shifted and I wanted to write the best book I was capable of writing. Eventually, I decided to see if publication was a possibility.
Q. For a first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is extremely ambitious. What do you look for in a novel subject, and what's next for you?
I enjoy stepping out of my own world and into the past. I'm interested in social class and power struggles. I'm currently working on a novel that takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas. The story revolves around a college–educated woman who marries a dairy farmer. The story begins two months before the 1900 storm, the historical hurricane that killed more than six thousand people.
- How does Rachel's story fit into the stories you've learned about American history? Did anything in this novel come as a surprise to you?
- For Isaac, a measure of a man is the amount of land he owns. How does this credo drive him? What are its limitations?
- Isaac and Rachel's relationship is a complicated one. Would you describe it as a marriage of love, a marriage of convenience, or something in between?
- Rachel and Isaac DuPree have made many assumptions about the Indians they encounter. How does Rachel's attitude toward Native peoples change over the course of the book and why?
- Rachel looks up to the writer Ida B. Wells–Barnett and her independent spirit. How does her hero guide her thoughts and actions?
- Rachel and Isaac are just a generation removed from slavery. In what ways does slavery hover over them psychologically, and how do they, as individuals, internalize this history?
- During their years in the Badlands and especially during the drought, Rachel must make many sacrifices to support her family and protect her children. Where does she draw the line and why?
- Midway through the book, Rachel comes to a difficult conclusion about her husband. How does this happen and why is she just recognizing it for the first time?
- Motherhood—Rachel, Isaac's mother, Rachel's mother—looms large in this book, and all of these women are powerful figures. What do they have in common and what distinguishes them from one another?
- What are some of the challenges, physical and otherwise, that Rachel would have faced if she had stayed on for the winter alone?
- Rachel ultimately must make a decision about whether to stay in the Badlands. What factors influence this decision? In your opinion, what sort of life lies ahead for her and her family?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1917 Chicago, the established black bourgeoisie don't mix with the new arrivals from the South. For Rachel, a lowly cook, the only way to nab her employer's son, the dashing Isaac DuPree, a former Buffalo Soldier with homesteading aspirations, is to relinquish to him her share of 160 acres from the Homestead Act. In the harsh environment of the Badlands, they have to cope with a variety of grippingly told hardships. The apparition of Mrs. Fills the Pipe, a Native-American remote neighbor, and the ensuing "tea-party" bring a note of humor and controversy, and still another viewpoint. Years later, when Rachel realizes that Isaac is ready to sacrifice their five surviving children's prospects to his yearnings for more land, she has to take the situation in her own hands. Throughout the novel, references to personalities Rachel looks up too, such as activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, help bring the reader back to that time and place. All in all, an original homesteading story, seen from a slightly different perspective.
Ann Weisgarber¿s debut novel has received many accolades, all well-deserved. Your heart will ache -- with love and despair, with wonder and disbelief, with hope and pride. The Personal History of Rachel Dupree tells of life in the South Dakota Badlands in the early 1900s, when the last parcels of land in the U.S. Homestead Act were divvied up -- land so barren, remote and harsh that few had the fortitude and stubbornness to tame it. Anyone could make a claim to 160 acres -- even a single woman or a Negro, and Rachel Reeves was both. She worked as a housekeeper in Chicago, fell in love with Buffalo Soldier Isaac Dupree and dreamed of a better life. Isaac didn¿t want a wife, but he did want more land. The two made a bargain -- each would stake a claim to 160 acres in South Dakota, they would marry and Isaac would own all 320 acres. Then Rachel would have one year to prove she was strong enough to be a rancher¿s wife, or she would be shipped back to Chicago. Fourteen years later, with five children and a baby on the way, in the midst of a brutal drought, Rachel must somehow muster even more strength to do right by her family in impossibly hard times. Weisgarber transports the reader to the harsh, lonely Badlands and sheds light on a little-known piece of American frontier history. Her description of events, emotions and landscape are vivid and haunting, beautiful and terrifying. I felt the grit in my skin and the ache in my belly. I wept the bittersweet tears of a mother¿s heartbreak. Rachel Dupree grabbed hold of my hand in the very first paragraph, and I could not let go until the final page was turned. In fact, a part of me is still holding on¿
I wanted Isaac to say that I meant something to him, that he¿d be proud to take me as his wife. Instead, I felt cheap. This wasn¿t how I wanted it to be. I had sold myself for a hundred and sixty acres of land. But it didn¿t have to stay that way. I¿d work hard. I¿d prove myself. Isaac wouldn¿t be able to do without me. - from The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, page 57 -It is the early part of the twentieth century and Rachel is a black woman working as a housekeeper in a Chicago boarding house when she meets Isaac DuPree. Isaac is a Buffalo Soldier fighting Indians in the West and he dreams of land ownership ¿ something that is now possible through the Homestead Act (a Federal law which gave an applicant ownership of free farmland called a ¿homestead¿ ¿ typically 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River). Rachel is instantly attracted to Isaac, but Isaac is not looking for a wife¿until he realizes that marrying Rachel means he will have 320 acres instead of just 160. They strike a bargain that Rachel will turn over her land to Isaac and he will marry her for one year. Fourteen years later, the couple is still together living on the unforgiving plains of the South Dakota Badlands with their five children.The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is written in the first person narrative of Rachel, a woman who had dreams of her own wooden home but now finds herself barely surviving a drought, and desperate for the contact of other women. Fearful for her children and at odds with her husband, Rachel begins to hatch a plan to escape the Badlands and return to Chicago.Ann Weisgarber¿s novel is the story of one woman, but it takes a broader look at the struggle of blacks to break free of inequality and become landowners. Weisgarber also touches on the plight of Native Americans during the early part of the twentieth century¿and about the rigid racial stereotypes which were typical at that time.Through vivid descriptions of life in a barren and harsh environment, Rachel Dupree lives and breathes in the pages of this novel. Rachel is symbolic of the many women who ventured from civilization into the wilds of the west, helping their husbands to settle the land and facing drought, starvation, accidents and even the dangers of childbirth with courage.The writing in this novel is unsentimental, Rachel¿s voice often matter-of-fact, yet it is surprisingly moving. I found myself deeply engrossed in this very American story of a strong woman¿s quest for a better life for herself and her children. Readers who love Pioneer history, will be drawn to Weisgarber¿s novel which was short-listed for the Orange Prize¿s New Writers Award in 2009.Recommended.
Rachel Reeves was a strong-willed, hard-working woman from Chicago who wanted a better life for herself, including marrying a man with "ambition." When her boss's son, Isaac DuPree, came home on leave from the Army, Rachel knew she met the man she wanted to marry. Isaac was determined to improve his lot in life by planning to move to South Dakota to become a rancher. Rachel, seeing her ticket out, approached Isaac about marrying her to help him claim more land - an offer he couldn't refuse. It was then that she became Rachel DuPree - and her personal history as a black wife of a South Dakota rancher came alive on the page.Rachel's story about living in the harsh conditions of South Dakota was mesmorizing. At the time of the story, her ranch was experiencing a severe drought, and she worried about food and water for her family (which included four children and one on the way). As conditions worsened, Rachel began to yearn for life back in Chicago. For Isaac, though, returning home meant failure - he wouldn't even consider it. Rachel began to ponder her choices, deeply torn between her children and her marriage.A deep undertone to The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was racism. As a black family, the DuPrees experienced racism in South Dakota, but what was more pronounced was the racism toward Native Americans. Additionally, there was racism among the African Americans, where Northern blacks discriminated against blacks from the South. This book was an eye-opening look at the various forms of racism that plagued the U.S. in the early 20th century.With its strong characters and themes, A Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a worthwhile read for anyone who likes stories that examine social issues. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. It's definitely worthy of its accolades, and I look forward to more fiction by Ann Weisgarber.
Enjoyable book about a African American family homesteading in the early 1900's.
The time is 1903. The setting is Chicago. Rachel is working as a cook in a boarding house, living at home with her parents to whom she hands over most of her paychecks to, and there are no marriage prospects in sight unless she wants to settle for a slaughter house worker and still be a cook in a boarding house ten years down the road. So when a fine fellow, Isaac Dupree comes around talking about 160 acres of South Dakota land, Rachel pretty much proposes to him. The deal: She gets her own 160 acres and hands it over to him in exchange for one year of marriage. Fourteen years and a couple kids later. Rachel has gone from being a cook to trying to scrape enough beans and water together to make the smallest meal. There is a drought. The animals are starving to death, the cow's milk has run dry. Added to that is some doubts she is having about her husband, Isaac and his possibly shady past. He also treats her like a farm hand, not a wife. She is battling back and forth with herself.. Stay in the Badlands or go home to Chicago? Is there even a home for her there anymore? One by one, ranchers are leaving and pretty soon Rachel is the only woman left in the area in the only African American family. It's a good story as far as showing readers what life in pioneer SD was like and especially during a drought but I didn't like Rachel enough to give it a five. She locks her kids in their room while she does stuff rather than watch them.. and even tho she does it to run off and find another one, it's still wrong. What if the house catches fire or something? She also sticks her kid in the dark depths of a well screaming and crying to get the last dredges of water rather than ask for a handout.. When you have kids, you gotta swallow your pride.. That's going too far. I also would have preferred she have a bit more backbone with Isaac. She just let him run and control everything. Spineless.. until the very end. Good ending. The story itself tho, going back and forth between 1903 Chicago and her meeting Isaac to the 1917 Badlands and drought and hungry children, and strange Native American visitors was great. 4/5 stars.
this is a real slice of history - and a tough read due to the subject. The story is about a women who falls in absolute love with a man who sees in her a women who can survive in the wilds of America. Their life is one long and painful struggle and the book at times is so hard to read as its so, so sad. Its well written but its a harrowing read. Not appropriate for anyone looking for a cheery novel. Read it when you are feeling emotionally ok!
Ann Weisbarger's debut novel focuses on a piece of history that hasn't really been explored much in fiction: the experiences of African Americans homesteading on the frontier around the turn of the century. Rachel Reeves is a 25-year-old working as the kitchen help in the boardinghouse of Mrs. DuPree, a well-to-do African American woman. When Mrs. DuPree's son Isaac comes home to visit, Rachel falls in love with him and agrees to a marriage of convenience. Isaac will commit to one year of marriage to Rachel if she agrees to claim land through the Homestead Act-- land which becomes Isaac's with their marriage.Rachel's choice takes her to the Badlands of South Dakota; as the novel opens, Rachel is pregnant with her eighth child and the family is facing a severe drought. Rachel's voice moves back and forth in time, illuminating both her life in the Badlands and her young adulthood in Chicago, before her marriage. Rachel struggles with issues universal to frontier wives; however, she also confronts issues unique to being an African American woman at the turn of the century. The novel poignantly illustrates that at this time in America's history, there was no truly safe place for African Americans.One of the author's greatest strengths is the ability to write the prose in such a way that you almost feel Rachel's feelings. This novel is a great example of how history can sometimes be experienced much more powerfully in fiction than in nonfiction. The reader experiences what it would have felt like to be this person, during this time period.At a little over three hundred pages, this is a very quick read but one that stays with you. I devoured it in one day. Very highly recommended, and I look forward to more from this author.
"The Personal History of Rachel DuPree" opens in the Badlands of South Dakota during World War I. Rachel and her family--her husband Issac and her 5 children--are struggling to survive a terrible drought and to keep their ranch in the process. Rachel came to the Badlands 14 years earlier from Chicago after making a deal with Issac Dupree--he would marry her if he could stake a claim in her name. As African Americans, Issac thought this was the only way he could secure land. As Rachel looks back on her life with Issac, she begins to question her decision to live in this hard place and what is best for her and her children. I found this novel to be incredibly moving and powerful. It reminded me of the pioneer novels of my youth--all grown up, with adult problems and emotions. The author does a wonderful job of capturing Rachel's isolation and emotions--I felt like I was out there with her on the prarie as she struggled to make her decisions. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys powerful historical fiction, since this is a book that you will remember.
Rarely have I experienced a historical novel such as this one. Ms Weisgarber has chosen to champion black women in the undeveloped and barren wilds of the Badlands, and she does it with a sensitivity that will break your heart, sparking feelings you didn't know you possessed. "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree" is a mightily rendered novel, it left me wondering how I could have held my breath such a long time.One thing was certain and universal throughout this book and that was the push-pull of relationship between man and woman. So many have experienced this expectation of the "bargain" for a marriage that hinges upon love and trust often weighed heavily on the woman's side, only to feel that "hinge" rusting away over years of hardship and childbearing. It is particularly present in this novel, handled in profound and bittersweet passages that show the anxieties of a mother's love and protective life-blood vrs. a man's drive to save his land and work. I felt Rachel's heartaches, her loneliness at times, and her isolation in choosing to do what was the best for her children; and, ultimately, for herself. While she, too, believed in working and culling out their stretch of land, it was secondary to her children.Rachel is a character so perfectly described and drawn that she's sure to be remembered in the vein of all great heroines. She's the epitome of not just black (Negro) women, but the best in the feminine spirit that causes us to rise above hardship and strife to claim our rights as women of valour, and mothers who make a difference in the world. She makes us proud to be women.That Ms Weisgarber chose this time period and these characters to write her book shines in its originality. I believe it's a gift that will keep living in the hearts and minds of many. Actually, I expect it will end up in the classrooms and colleges that reach for exceptional reading material of this period and of women who exempify those who made our country what it was meant to be."The Personal History of Rachel DuPree" makes me ashamed in a way that we haven't explored and honored black womens' contributions in opening our frontiers before this!5 well-deserved stars
The inside book jacket says this is reminiscent of Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Color Purple. I did think of Wilder and Cather in that this book is so entirely different from theirs, and as for The Color Purple, well, the characters are African American and work hard, that's about it. I found this to be completely unique work, the all American capitalist story told by someone with little interest in economics. Rachel moved from Louisiana to the slaughterhouse area of Chicago as a child, left school at age 16 to earn money for her family as a cook, and experienced constant discrimination from Chicago's black elite because of her dark color and her family's recent immigration. She idolizes Ida B. Wells-Barnett and thinks she would make the woman proud of her by marrying a charismatic, ambitious, hard working, good looking goal-oriented soldier who wanted to make his fortune by settling a ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota. Fourteen years and eight children later the Badlands continue to live up to their name. The family experiences hardship after hardship: draught, freezing winters, hunger, thirst, loneliness and racism. How Rachel deals with these difficulties and what she thinks about them are what make the book so unique. Aside from a rather unbelievable birth scene I found the book nearly perfect and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading about pioneers, hard work or marriage.
A lovely little book - shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and it was beautifully written and well crafted for a first novel. The topic was interesting - a black family settling in the Dakota Badlands when there were very few black ranchers. We learn Rachel's story through the present day (drought, five kids and on...e on the way) and through flashbacks and throughout it all we feel her slowly gathering pain and her understanding that although she loves her husband he is more interested in acquiring land and cattle than he is in seeing his family clothed, comfortable or safe. Some interesting details about relationships with the Indians - while the DuPree's suffered racism and intolerance they were busily subjecting their Indian neighbours to the same treatment.
This must be the most hardscrabble of all the hardscrabble books I¿ve read. Having visited The Badlands, I cannot imagine trying to make a living there, especially during a drought. This novel plainly and startlingly tells a story about homesteading in the 1910s by a black family in South Dakota. Ann Weisgarber makes you feel the desolation of the area, the hopelessness of the situation, and the strength of character it takes to endure. Water. You won¿t take it for granted after reading this book.
Ann Weisgarber spent seven years on the research and writing of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, her first novel, and has been rewarded for her efforts with several literary honors, including an Orange Prize nomination (the book was first published in England). The research enables Weisgarber to bring her story to life with careful details, but the most effective detail she uses is her title character's narrative voice. The fact that some of the homesteading pioneers of the Great Plains were African-Americans seems to be a bit of an historical footnote, but in some ways it makes sense that they'd seek opportunity in a place where they wouldn't be held back by entrenched traditions and prejudices. Isaac DuPree saw that opportunity in the landowning promise of the Homestead Act; and in Isaac, Rachel Reeves saw her own opportunity to escape potential marriage to a slaughterhouse worker and a life of domestic labor. They made a deal: Isaac could claim Rachel's 160 Homestead-Act acres as well as his own if they got married and remained husband and wife for a year. Twelve years later, they live with their five children on the 2500 acres they now own, seizing more opportunities as neighboring ranchers give up on the tough, unwelcoming Dakota Badlands, sell out, and move back east. And now, a summer of terrible drought and another baby on the way have caused Rachel to wonder whether those neighbors might have had the right idea, and she begins to question what opportunities her children will find in this isolated, difficult place.It's hard not to be impressed by how effectively Ann Weisgarber gives voice to an African-American pioneer woman of nearly a century ago. I was immediately and deeply drawn into Rachel's story and the challenges of her life--not just the hard labor of it, but the deep insecurity of it. Making a living off the land is inherently insecure and easily destabilized by the whims of nature, and for the DuPrees, it's compounded by the harshness of the place where they're trying to make that living. Rachel's increasing sense of loneliness is clear, and I responded strongly to both her strength and the tangled emotions that cause her to doubt it. I wouldn't have minded if The Personal History of Rachel DuPree had been a longer novel; there were some plot threads that didn't seem to be fully explored. At the same time, I'm not sure a longer novel would have had the same intensity or, in the end, have been as satisfying.
Once again Ms. Weisgarber produced a truly engaging book. I loved the main character and enjoyed learning what life was like in this period of history. Truly enjoyable book and especially loved the ending, which was a bit of a surprise.
Excellent!!! Highly recommended. I have read The Promise her second book. Both books were great character studies. Well worth your time and money. A++++++++++
This was a really good book. You get the perspective of blacks living in the dakotas. My one complaint is that the ending left me longing for more. I want to know what happened to Rachel and her children.
Set in the Badlands of South Dakota, it shows the struggles of homesteaders and a touching story of a family, from the eyes of Rachel DuPree. It gave me a sense of what my great-grandparents may have faced when they staked their claim in SD.
I really enjoyed this book and would like to read more by this author. It read like it was true and brought about every emotion to the table for the characters, and helped me to see what it must have been like for families to survive one hundred years ago. You can't help but cheer Rachel on. Thank you for the ending I was hoping for. What a great movie this would make.
Really liked this book. The author brought me right into the harsh world of the Badlands, from rattling prairie grasses, coyotes howling like devils, and grit that couldn't be kept outside. Rachel, a cook at a Chicago boardinghouse, falls for the ambitious son of her employer and persuades him to marry her - a deal. She works hard on their Badlands homestead to prove herself to Isaac, all the while wondering whether she is just a good workhorse to him. Will his ambition finally break her? This is a study of personal and societal relationships, from lowly "too dark" Rachel and her "high class" black employer to whites and blacks on the frontier to Isaac and the neighboring Indians, but mostly the delicate dance between Rachel and Isaac. Throw in some history to boot: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, buffalo soldiers, St. Louis race riots. I was gunning for Rachel all the way to the end.
Rachel¿s story is, without a doubt, a story of hardship, survival and courage. She is an amazingly strong woman and although her sense of loyalty is admirable, she is not naive. No, that is the one thing she most certainly is not. As the harshness of the environment continues to take its toll, Rachel ponders what it means to be a rancher¿s wife and what it will mean for her daughters down the line. Books like this one, take you outside of what you know and allow you to experience a different lifestyle from the comfort of your own home. To say that this book grabbed me from its opening pages and held on to me throughout, would be an understatement. It was a quick, riveting read and gave me a lots to think about. I highly recommend it.