The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber was originally published in 2009 when it was also shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. I first knew of Ann Weisgarber due to the publication of her latest novel The Promise – first review ever published here! – and since then we have remained in touch. When The Promise came out last March, I wanted to review her other novel and was kindly sent a paperback edition by Sophie from Mantle.
When Rachel, hired help in a Chicago boardinghouse, falls in love with Isaac, the boardinghouse owner’s son, he makes her a bargain: he’ll marry her, but only if she gives up her 160 acres from the Homestead Act so he can double his share. She agrees, and together they stake their claim in the forebodingly beautiful South Dakota Badlands.
Fourteen years later, in the summer of 1917, the cattle are bellowing with thirst. It hasn’t rained in months, and supplies have dwindled. Pregnant, and struggling to feed her family, Rachel is isolated by more than just geography. She is determined to give her surviving children the life they deserve, but she knows that her husband, a fiercely proud former Buffalo Soldier, will never leave his ranch: black families are rare in the West, and land means a measure of equality with the white man. Somehow Rachel must find the strength to do what is right-for herself, and for her children.
Reminiscent of The Color Purple as well as the frontier novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree 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.
One of the things I pay attention when reading reviews is whether the blogger refers to the time it took them to read the book. I think there are books that capture your attention and don’t let you go. This is one of them: it only took me 5 days to read it despite the tough story it tells. You want to know about Rachel – her past, present and future – while at the same time you struggle with the story. The Badlands in South Dakota are as dry and arid as you can think. There are moments when you fear sand is actually falling out from the book and you feel your mouth going dry.
Regarding the historical period, I had never heard of African-American settlers and their stories in the frontier. But neither did Ann before a trip to the Badlands. There, she saw a picture that inspired her to write this moving debut novel. Somehow, for most readers the frontier stories are exemplified by Willa Cather and her novels such as O Pioneers! Weisgarber’s story has very much in common with Cather in that they both create strong, female main characters. They have families but they find themselves alone and fighting a place that seems keen on expelling them. They also struggle with fellow settlers and their perception of women: Alexandra from O Pioneers! becomes a powerful landowner after a lot of years fighting against what they believe she should be which is basically a wife and a mother. Rachel DuPree is a wife and a mother but she is also a landowner and never lets the Badlands defeat her desire for a better life.
Another key theme is racial segregation. In Chicago, Rachel’s parents in law were relevant among the African-American community, but her husband has the need to prove himself equal to white landowners. He is usually reminding Rachel of the need to acquire more land to become a powerful man and how people are not used to to seeing a black man owning so much. Rachel’s response throughout the novel questions how far would her husband go to fight racial stereotypes and how it would all affect their family. I think this was the most interesting theme in the whole novel: Rachel not only is African-American, but she’s also a woman who makes her doubly subjected in an era when women were not allowed to vote and her ancestors – still alive like her grandmother – were born slaves.
One of the suggested questions for book clubs is whether The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a feminist novel or not. I think the fact Ann is giving voice to an African-American woman in the frontier already makes it a feminist novel. As I said before, the idea of black settles had never crossed my mind and they are definitely not properly inscribed in history books. But Rachel is also a strong woman and more importantly, she allows herself to change. The Rachel you encounter in Chicago has nothing to do with the one that desperately prays for some rain at the beginning of the novel. The Badlands made her a resolute, powerful woman but also more humble, sensible and sensitive.
I would recommend The Personal History of Rachel DuPree to everyone who is interested in frontier stories, but especially to those who have already read Cather’s novels. Weisgarber novel provides a very different yet very similar point of view. Despite the ethnic difference, Alexandra and Rachel are both women, they are both human beings who struggle against one of the most difficult situations in American history. But beware! The story is a hard one and it may be useful to keep a box of paper tissues near you while reading!