Monday, October 31, 2016

Book review: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Last year I read Ms. Weisgarber's second novel, The Promise, and I got to meet her (she was delightful.) I determined immediately that I was going to go back and read her first novel. After all, I love historical fiction and it was intriguing in that it wasn't a story at all overdone. Rachel and Isaac DuPree are African-American homesteaders in South Dakota in the early 1900s. That's a story I haven't read before.

The bulk of the story except the last chapter takes place over about one week with a lot of flashbacks. I loved the flashbacks. The now storyline was grim as this family of seven—soon to be eight—was experiencing a horrendous drought in the Badlands. But in the flashbacks when Rachel was young and not tied down, working as the cook in Mrs. DuPree's boarding house (where she even once got to meet Ida B. Wells), she seemed free and full of possibility. When Mrs. DuPree's handsome son, a soldier, showed up in uniform, Rachel fell for him hard. And it seemed like her dream came true when he figured that if he had a wife he could stake two claims and get double the land. But When we see how beaten down Rachel has become, starving, terrified for her children, living in a land alone, with only rare (white) ranchers around them and the occasional Native American (who Isaac calls "agency Indians" and hates), I felt so sad that her dream had turned out so badly.

Partly you think that if it would just rain, everything would turn around. And for those of us who grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter and saw how they survived and even thrived afterwards, there was a grain of hope. But this is the Badlands. Things don't turn out quite that way. And Rachel has a decision to make.

While the book started off slow, with introducing the characters and setting up two very disparate historical settings and before I really saw where the story was going, once it got going, it swept me along like a rainstorm after a drought that just rushes away because the ground is too dry to penetrate. The last 200 pages just flew by. It was fascinating to think about this possibility—and I agree with Isaac's bafflement that more African-Americans didn't take up the U.S. Government on a chance for some "free" land (in quotes because it was so hard to farm that it took quite a toll on the homesteaders, a price I wouldn't pay.) But kudos to Ms. Weisgarber for finding this nugget of history that has never been mined before (to my knowledge) and giving it life. Rachel is a great heroine and I wish I could be friends with her. And eat her biscuits.

A friend who works at an independent bookstore gave me an ARC of this book years ago. At some point it got purged, so I checked it out of the library.

1 comment:

Ann Weisgarber said...

Hello Carin! Thank you so much for this lovely review. I'm thrilled. Your blog brought back happy memories of my visit to North Carolina and the Southern Festival of Books. Hope all is well with you.