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.
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Published by Viking, 2010
Source: Review (see review policy)
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