(This is a revised/updated post reflecting my thoughts upon finishing this novel. It was originally published on December 8, 2011 to meet a commitment for a TLC Book Tour date.)
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree: A Novel
Penguin (Non-Classics) (2011), Paperback (ISBN 0143119486 / 9780143119487)
Fiction (historical), 336 pages
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour
Opening lines: “I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well. She held on to the rope that hung from the pulley, her bare feet pressed together so tight that the points on her ankle bones were nearly white. She was six. She had on her brother’s castoff pants and earlier, when I’d given them to her, she’d asked if wearing pants made her a boy. I’d told her we’d wait and see, and that had made her giggle.
“The plank Liz sat on swayed and twisted in a wind that blew stinging grit. Her bandana covered her nose and mouth. The rope around her waist was knotted to the one that held the plank. Isaac, my husband, called it a harness. He said it’d keep her from falling off.
“’We’re right here,’ I said to her. ‘Daddy’s got you.’”
Book description, via the publisher’s website: 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.
Comments: Ann Weisgarber spent seven years on the research and writing of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, her first novel, and has been rewarded for her efforts with several literary honors, including an Orange Prize nomination (the book was first published in England). The research enables Weisgarber to bring her story to life with careful details, but the most effective detail she uses is her title character’s narrative voice.
The fact that some of the homesteading pioneers of the Great Plains were African-Americans seems to be a bit of an historical footnote, but in some ways it makes sense that they’d seek opportunity in a place where they wouldn’t be held back by entrenched traditions and prejudices. Isaac DuPree saw that opportunity in the landowning promise of the Homestead Act; and in Isaac, Rachel Reeves saw her own opportunity to escape potential marriage to a slaughterhouse worker and a life of domestic labor. They made a deal: Isaac could claim Rachel’s 160 Homestead-Act acres as well as his own if they got married and remained husband and wife for a year. Twelve years later, they live with their five children on the 2500 acres they now own, seizing more opportunities as neighboring ranchers give up on the tough, unwelcoming Dakota Badlands, sell out, and move back east. And now, a summer of terrible drought and another baby on the way have caused Rachel to wonder whether those neighbors might have had the right idea, and she begins to question what opportunities her children will find in this isolated, difficult place.
It’s hard not to be impressed by how effectively Ann Weisgarber gives voice to an African-American pioneer woman of nearly a century ago. I was immediately and deeply drawn into Rachel’s story and the challenges of her life–not just the hard labor of it, but the deep insecurity of it. Making a living off the land is inherently insecure and easily destabilized by the whims of nature, and for the DuPrees, it’s compounded by the harshness of the place where they’re trying to make that living. Rachel’s increasing sense of loneliness is clear, and I responded strongly to both her strength and the tangled emotions that cause her to doubt it.
One thing that struck me early in my reading of this work of historical fiction is that it’s an interesting companion/counterpoint to one my favorite nonfiction reads of 2011, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson’s book explores the “Great Migration” of thousands of African-Americans from the segregated small towns of the South to the big cities of the North and the West Coast. Through Rachel Dupree, Ann Weisgarber traces the migration of one African-American family from a big Northern city to the harsh, barely-populated prairies of the Dakotas, where they are more challenged by the isolation and the elements than by Jim Crow in their efforts to cultivate the land and make a life.
I wouldn’t have minded if The Personal History of Rachel DuPree had been a longer novel; there were some plot threads that didn’t seem to be fully explored. At the same time, I’m not sure a longer novel would have had the same intensity or, in the end, have been as satisfying.