24 March 2011

Review: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

When Rachel Reeves DuPree was born in Louisiana, her parents—freed slaves—could not have imagined that she would one day marry an ex-Buffalo soldier and own a ranch in the Badlands. After the Reeveses moved to Chicago to work in the slaughter houses and hotels, the family got a taste for city life and the children went to school.

Rachel, outspoken and independent, became the cook in Mrs. DuPree's boardinghouse for black laborers. She was friendly to the men but kept her distance; she was not looking for a husband in the likes of them. When Isaac DuPree showed up to visit his mother after being mustered out of the army, Rachel admired his ambition. He talked of nothing but Indian Territory and the opportunities available to black men who took advantage of the Homestead Act.

Rachel was getting past marrying age, and Isaac wanted as much land as he could acquire. Before he returned West to stake his claim, the two struck a bargain. Isaac would come back to wed her, giving her married-lady status, if she would stake her own claim and live with him for the required year.

Fourteen years later, Rachel was pregnant for the eighth time, and the DuPrees owned one of the biggest ranches in their part of the Badlands. The couple worked well together, and Rachel rarely questioned Isaac, trusting that he knew best. But that summer was rainless, and the grit and dust and dying livestock were hard to bear. By fall, most of their neighbors had pulled stakes and given up; Isaac DuPree, however, was wondering about how many abandoned homesteads he could afford to buy.

For the sake of her family and unborn child, Rachel kept up with her duties and supported her husband. However, the day Isaac lowered their six-year-old daughter to the bottom of the well in hopes of filling the water bucket, was the day Rachel began to truly think about her married life. As she mulled over the past, she made plans for her future.

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. (opening paragraph)
In The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Ann Weisgarber tells us about a different kind of settler of the American West. First, the DuPrees stand out because they began homesteading fairly late. In 1904, they were able to take a train from Chicago almost the whole way to their claim. Second, because Isaac had soldiered in Indian Territory and at Wounded Knee, he already knew what to expect from the upper Midwest. And finally, the DuPrees are black, but although they are just one generation away from slavery, they are educated and comfortable in both city and country.

At the same time, Rachel's story is universal. She paid a steep price for owning all that free land: two dead children, isolation, never-ending labor, dependency on the weather, and lack of electricity and indoor plumbing. As the drought continues, she cannot help but think about her family in Chicago, who have the luxury of turning on a tap and having enough water to fill a tub. She worries about her children growing up as the only blacks for miles around. She feels the loneliness as her friends move on looking for greener pastures.

Many women marry ambitious young men with the hopes of escaping their current circumstances. They get caught up in the dreams, and they want to be part of them. Rachel was no different. And like those women, Rachel eventually opened her eyes and saw her husband for what he was, noticing the flaws behind the charming, capable facade. And like those women, Rachel was forced to decide what do once she'd been awakened.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree would make an excellent book club selection, even for those who generally do not read historical fiction. Topics for discussion include early-twentieth-century race relations, marriage, motherhood, civil rights, women's rights, and the plight of the American Indian.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Recorded Books, 10 hr, 12 min), read by Myra Lucretia Taylor. Taylor's emotionally charged narration brings the book to life, helping listeners connect to Rachel on a personal level. My full audio review will be published by AudioFile Magazine.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was an Indie Next Pick for August 2010. For more on Ann Weisgarber and the story behind her novel, be sure to visit her website, where you will also find an excerpt, interview, and reading guide.

Published by Viking, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780670022014
YTD: 31
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Julie P. 3/24/11, 8:44 AM  

Oooh! Sounds like a good one.

bermudaonion 3/24/11, 9:27 AM  

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but you've made this book sound really interesting.

Lenore 3/24/11, 9:40 AM  

It does seem like a great book club book!

Martha@Hey, I want to read that 3/24/11, 10:09 AM  

I've been reading more historical fiction lately and this time period appeals to me. I usually don't care for the setting, the West and homesteading never really got me, but this does sound very interesting. I'll have to let my book club know about this book.

Zibilee 3/24/11, 10:21 AM  

I loved this review, and although I do read a lot of historical fiction, I haven't yet read anything set in this time. I guess that's what I get for sticking to English history mostly. I think the story that this book tells sounds very interesting and just from reading your review, I can imagine there is lots here to talk about. This is going on the list of proposed book club books. Thanks, Beth.

Barbara 3/24/11, 10:35 AM  

My great-grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska and my grandfather and his sister were born there. But after several tragedies, they returned to Illinois and his railroad job. Even though they were white and went west with a group of friends and family, I think this would be fascinating for me to read. It's going on my list ASAP.

Vasilly 3/24/11, 10:57 AM  

This sounds like a great book. I've had it on my tbr list for years. Now I know I need to read this soon. Great review.

Nise' 3/24/11, 11:03 AM  

My kind of book! Will keep a look out for it.

Madeline Mora-Summonte 3/24/11, 11:17 AM  

Another book to add to my books-to-read list. Keep them coming! :)

Kris 3/24/11, 1:26 PM  

This sounds really good! I'm going to keep it in mind and might try the audio version too, if my library carries it.

Sandy Nawrot 3/24/11, 6:07 PM  

For one of my book clubs, we read a novel called Cane River, which was about several generations of slave women in Louisiana, who started to accumulate land throug their white owners. Fascinating part of history.

JP 3/24/11, 8:15 PM  

This book sounds great! I typically don't read about the American West, but this sounds like such an interesting take on it. Thanks for the great review!

Amused 3/24/11, 11:20 PM  

I have been wanting to read this one forever but can not find a copy in my bookstore. So glad to see its worth keeping on my wishlist!

Tribute Books 3/25/11, 10:58 AM  

Ooo, this one sounds really good!

Rebecca Rasmussen 3/25/11, 2:22 PM  

I've been meaning to read this book for a long while now. So glad you reminded me :)

BookGeek 3/25/11, 4:02 PM  

Sounds good, but also kind of sad. I suppose all books will carry that emotion, of course. Great review Beth!

TheGourmetCoffeeGuy 3/27/11, 11:16 PM  

Very interesting post. The book review is very good. You definitely motivate me to buy and read this book. Sounds like a very engaging story of courage, adventure, and everything else the American West offers. Thank you for sharing.

nomadreader 11/1/11, 2:30 PM  

I bet this one would be good on audio. I was amazed how strongly I connected with Rachel and her life.

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