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:||5.11(w) x 7.73(h) x 0.72(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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.