The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
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.