Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Title: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
Author: Ann Weisgarber

Genre: Fiction (Historical / South Dakota / African Americans / Pioneer Homesteaders / 1910s / early 20th century)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (7/ 26/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to love -- wonderful book!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The struggles of an African-American family in 1917 on their drought-dried ranch in South Dakota.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it very beautifully captures the sense of the story (although it vaguely reminds me of a YA novel, which this isn't.)

I'm reminded of...: Sigrid Undset

First line: I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well.

Did... I blow past my stop during my commute?: YES! Another book so engrossing I looked up only when the train stopped and I realized I'd gone to the end of the line! But I didn't mind -- circling back gave me more time to read!

Did... I do a double take when I got to a passage mentioning the war in Europe (WWI)?: YES! It was a shock to realize this was 1917 and not 18whenever -- that the Western US was still made up of sod house homesteads and that the families working the land had family members who served in the Army and fought against the 'Indians' (the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek happened in 1890, for example). It was shocking to see how little I know of early 20th century American history and the difference between 1917 on the East Coast and 1917 in the rural American west.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a fascinating, moving novel!

Why did I get this book?: I lived in South Dakota for about four years and it was an intense experience. I knew that I had to read this book since it was set there!

Review: This is the kind of book that makes me joyful as a reader. It's immediately engrossing, it illuminates a life that is otherwise foreign to me, and paints real landscapes and situations I've never experienced. Set in 1917 at a ranch in South Dakota by the Badlands, the story is told by Rachel DuPree, an African-American woman who married an ambitious man, whose entire identity and self-value is tied up in the land he owns. The book opens with a punch: a longstanding drought requires the extreme measure of lowering the smallest child into the ranch's well in order to scoop up what water may be had. From the beginning, Rachel is torn between desperately wanting the water to keep her children and livestock alive yet wracked with horror at her acquiescence of this act.

This book is emotional but not out of any lurid or melodramatic scenes -- instead, the oomph comes from the hard reality of life for Rachel and her children. Alternating between Rachel's present and flashing back to how she ended up in South Dakota in 1917, we learn about two hard, determined people -- Rachel and her husband Isaac -- and the results of a gamble and a hope. The grim basis of Rachel and Isaac's marriage was what grabbed at my heart the most -- it was at times beautiful and at times horrifically cruel. But I could completely appreciate Rachel's loyalty and the choices she made because she was such a real character.

Race, understandably, features in this novel: the discussion of skin color shade among the society African-Americans in Chicago, the perception of Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells in the African-American community, and the 'us-vs-them' story created by the homesteaders and settlers to differentiate themselves from the Native Americans on the reservations in South Dakota. Class and education also affect the story and characters, as both Rachel and Isaac want something more for themselves and their children -- but have wildly differing ideas as to what that means. Again, what was so compelling for me as I read was this marriage and Rachel's challenge to balance her happiness, her children's well-being, and her husband's wishes with what she thinks is right.

Upon finishing, I immediately thought two things: one, that one should vacation to the Badlands because they are staggeringly gorgeous but OMG, I never want to live there again; and two, that I wanted there to be another book. Although the ending of this one was perfect, I could have used another 300 pages or a second volume to follow Rachel and her family some more. I was reminded a bit of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter (a favorite of mine that I never wanted to end!). This would make an excellent book club selection since the themes of family, obligation, compromise in marriage, and prejudice are common ones. Apparently this book has been optioned for a film, so read it now before the movie is released!

*** *** ****


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree to one lucky reader! To enter, simply fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26.


  1. Well, if this book made you blow past your stop, it must be compelling! I went to ND, SD, and Wyoming a couple of years ago with a group that included an African American woman, and brother did she get looks, AND awful comments. It was an eye-opener about that area of the country!

  2. @Rhapsody: Yes, there is a depressing amount of racism in South Dakota still -- one of the things I don't miss about it! This book reminded me that I don't miss the wind, either - the cruel, unceasing wind! If you've seen SD, I think you'll especially appreciate this book as the landscape is essentially another character. So good!

  3. I am going to be reading this one next week, and am now really excited about it. It seems like it's a really penetrating book, and one that I know I will get a lot out of. It just sounds like such an amazing story, and I am so glad that you enjoyed it! Your review was wonderful as well. I had never really given any thought to African American homesteaders before. Thanks for sharing your very vivid thoughts and impressions!

  4. @Heather: It reads fast, I found, pretty effortless -- I suspect you'll enjoy this novel. It was very eye-opening on so many levels!

  5. I am definitely interested in this book after reading all the positive reviews!

  6. @Lola: It is seriously good (I know I keep saying that -- I'll try to think of more inventive ways to squee! ;)).

  7. I'm so glad you loved this one too! I had a similar reaction at the first mention of war. Wait--this book is set when? Wow. I definitely want to go visit the Badlands now too. Live there? No way, but I want to see them at least once.

  8. This sounds so interesting. Your comparison to Sigrid Undset is particularly compelling, as Kristen Lavransdatter is my favorite book EVER. Thanks so much for putting htis on my radar screen!

  9. @Carrie: It was surreal to think of homesteaders and covered wagons in the 20th century. The Badlands must be seen in person to be wholly appreciated -- that whole part of the country, really. I am glad we lived there, so I can say I experienced it but...yeah. It was intense, and that was with modern amenities!

    @Col: Kristen Lavransdatter is one of my top-ten desert island picks -- I adore that book (or those books, whatever)! I wouldn't say the author is a second Sigrid Undset but that the feel of Rachel's story -- bald, unapologetic, passionate, sad -- reminded me v much of reading KL. I'd love to know what you think of it should you pick it up!

  10. I skimmed your review a bit as I am about halfway thru with it. I am liking it much more than I thought I would.

  11. I can't say I would know much either, but then my excuse it that we are not taught much US history, mostly European of course ;)

  12. I don't think I've EVER read a book about this time/place/topic. With such a ringing endorsement from you I know I have to find myself a copy!

    Thanks for being on the tour Audra. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  13. This book sounds fantastic and your enthusiasm for it is infectious! Your review is wonderful! I know very little, if anything, about South Dakota and definitely like that I can discover that area in this book. Rachel sounds like an intriguing and inspiring character. Her life doesn't sound easy especially because Isaac's whole self is, essentially, wedded to the land. This book is different from any I've read and I love that!

  14. It amazes me that there would be that much racism still in SD/ND, Jill. What century is this?!

    Audra: this book sounds like something I would like to read, even though initially I was put off by the homesteaders reference, etc. I think the racism aspect here would interest me..and WWI reference?!

  15. I loved this book as well - it was so good. I have to agree that I had wished it was longer too. I would have liked to see what happened with Rachel and her family.

  16. This historical novel would be memorable. Many thanks for this great giveaway. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  17. Audra, thank you for this wonderful review. I very much appreciate your willingness to read Rachel DuPree.

    I find the turn of the last century interesting because we seem to skip it in the history books. At that time, the cities were modern with plumbing, electricity, and telephones. Yet, travel outside of the city limits and most of those conveniences didn't exist. Many rural areas stayed that way through the Depression/Dust Bowl era of the '30's

    Last month I was in South Dakota for the Festival of Books and had a chance to revisit the sod dugout that inspired Rachel. I was stunned all over again by the primitive conditions. Our ancestors were hardy, determined people.