The Personal History of Rachel DuPree - Book of the Month
by Ann Weisgarber
Rachel is a young, African American woman brought up in turn of the century Chicago. This is the bustling, stinking, modern city so brilliantly depicted by contemporaneous writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, where work is plentiful and migrants come in their droves. Rachel is cook to the entrepreneurial Mrs DuPree, proprietor of the DuPree Boarding House for Negro Men. That is, “respectable” black working men from the nearby slaughterhouses whom Mrs DuPree would counsel when she collected the rent on a Saturday. “We’ve got to be as good, even a little better than white folks if we’re ever going to get ahead” - a maxim that her son Isaac was to make his own.
Isaac, a Buffalo Soldier (African Americans who have served in every great American war) and possessed of the same indomitable spirit as his mother, stakes a claim for land in the Badlands of South Dakota. So hungry was this new country for people to work its land that anyone (even a black man - or woman) could stake a claim. Incredible when one considers that the legal end to slavery was in December of 1865. This book is full of revelations.
Rachel and Isaac leave the city and begin a new life farming 320 acres of scrub in a landscape and climate that is totally unforgiving. (The Badlands climate is variable and unpredictable with temperatures ranging from -40 F in winter to 116 F in summer). Rachel mourns "the bigness of it, the never endingness of it, the lonesomeness of it”. This is no sugary story of the Little House on the Prairie. To say that Rachel is a stalwart character is an understatement. As the only black farmers for miles around, she and her family are subjected to racist slights which she bears with dignity. But she is also secretly dismayed by Isaac’s bigotry towards the Native Americans whom he considers lazy and reliant on government aid while they, the stakeholders, have to eke out an existence.
In 1917, after fourteen years of relentless toil, several children, stillbirths and miscarriages, a seemingly interminable drought comes to the Badlands. The cattle are dying, the well is dry and Rachel is pregnant again. As she struggles to feed her family she and Isaac face a dilemma over whether to stay in the place that seems to refuse them at every turn, or to take the children back to the city where they can aim to build a better life.
In THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE Ann Weisgarber has taken a little-known area of American history and created a novel that is beautifully written, intelligent and thoroughly diverting.
Read our interview with Ann Weisgarber and read more about the fascinating story behind this book at her website, www.annweisgarber.com.