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The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann…

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (2008)

by Ann Weisgarber

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The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber is a story of the hardships and sacrifice that pioneer women faced and, making conditions even more harrowing, this is the story of a black pioneer woman. As the story opens Rachel and her family are living through the third year of a terrible drought in the Badlands of South Dakota. Rachel has married an ambitious man whose first priority is acquiring and keeping his land and Rachel has been his steady helpmate for all the fourteen years of their marriage. But when he decides to leave Rachel and her five children alone on the ranch through the winter in order to find work that will give him the means to buy his neighbours land, a heavily pregnant Rachel must decide whether to follow along with her man’s plan or chose another path for herself and the children.

Written in straight forward, spare prose, Rachel comes alive on these pages. She has suppressed her wants and needs for years in order to help her husband reach his goals, but as a protective and nurturing mother, she also realizes that she must do something in order for her children to have a better future. The author also touches on the fundamental divide that black people faced at that time, and although this divide could be found all across America, this was one more way that Rachel was isolated and alone in the Badlands of Dakota.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is an original piece of historical fiction, telling as it does, about the life of a black frontier woman. A big plus is that this is also an excellent story about love, loyalty and obligation as well. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Aug 31, 2017 |
As this novel begins it is the early 1900's, and Rachel Reeves has been working as a cook for eight years at Mrs. DuPree's boarding house for black men in Chicago. Now 25, she is still unmarried, but attracted to Mrs. DuPree’s son Isaac, 31, who has been in the army for 13 years. (Isaac served in the 9th Cavalry Regiment, historically one of the original six regiments of the regular U.S. Army set aside for black enlisted men by Congress in the act of July 28, 1866 reorganizing the army for post-Civil War service, mainly against native peoples in the West.) Isaac intends to get land pursuant to the 1862 Homestead Act, providing that any man or unmarried woman could claim a hundred and sixty ares of public land out west. Even blacks were eligible - as Isaac explained to a friend: “The Homestead Act doesn’t care about the color of a man’s skin. A man’s a man in the West.”

Mrs. DuPree looks down on Rachel - she is “too dark,” not well-educated (she had to quit school to support her family), and doesn’t come from an aristocratic family. Nevertheless, the ambitious Isaac figures that with Rachel, he could get 320 acres instead of 160, and agrees to marry her for one year in exchange. Rachel intended to prove to Isaac in that year that he wouldn’t be able to do without her. Mrs. DuPree disowns Isaac for marrying “low” and the couple sets out for the South Dakota Badlands.

The book, narrated by Rachel, goes back and forth in time beginning when Rachel worked at the boarding house, and alternating with a period fourteen years after the couple left for the west. They now have five children, with another two having died as infants. Life in the Badlands is extremely difficult, but whenever they get extra money, Isaac uses it to buy yet more land; as the story begins, they have 2500 acres, but hardly enough food and water to survive.

Rachel increasingly feels that Isaac cares more about accumulating land than the welfare of the rest of the family, especially the children. Brave, resourceful, and determined, she makes a hard decision for her future.

Discussion: There are a couple of subplots in the story worth mentioning. One is the social divide between Northern and Southern blacks. If you read World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe you will be reminded of the similar friction between German and Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, the former considering themselves a cut above the latter.

When Mrs. DuPree has Ida B. Wells come to speak to her ladies group, Rachel is delighted to discover that the famous and accomplished Mrs. Wells had been born a slave in Mississippi and related more to Rachel than the fancy women in the parlor. [Ida Bell Wells-Barnett born in 1862, was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.]

Another thread running through the story is Isaac’s curiously virulent hostility toward Native Americans. Rachel doesn’t find out the reason for it until almost the end of the story. But hints of what happened arise periodically, and affect the family’s relationship with others out west.

Evaluation: This gem of a book grabbed me from the start. It’s not long, but manages to pack a lot into it, from conditions for early settlers in the west, to race relations, social conventions, gender roles and expectations, and family love and loyalty. It would make an excellent book club selection.


Orange Prize Nominee for New Writers (2009)
David J. Langum Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction (2010)

Note: A movie with an all-star cast (with Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali, and Quvenzhané Wallis is in the works. ( )
  nbmars | Feb 28, 2017 |
An amazing first person history of two seemingly disparate elements: South Dakota and African American pioneers. Rachel is a cook in a stockyard boardinghouse for black workers when she meets Isaac, the son of the proprietor, and sees opportunity, a chance for love, and a ticket out of crowded Chicago. Isaac, a former Indian fighter, takes Rachel with him to South Dakota to cook and to allow him to stake a larger claim for his cattle ranch.

The time frame is the early 1900s, and all the hardships of settling the West and ranching are compounded by drought, racism, loneliness, and Isaac's determination to increase his land holdings at the expense of the health of his family. He's a complex character, as is Rachel, who is alternately devoted to him and her five living children and despairing of their survival due to the continuing series of natural disasters. Her life is torn between her family in South Dakota and her mother, brother, and sisters, who are facing race riots in the Midwest.

This is a riveting history, chock full of Rachel's thoughts and deeds. The only missing element is a listing of the author's research and suggestions on additional readings. And a sequel! ( )
  froxgirl | Jun 30, 2015 |
An African American couple struggles for survival while homesteading in the Badlands.
  yellerreads | Jul 25, 2014 |
I usually enjoy books about enduring and overcoming hardship, but for some reason this particular story didn't move me much. I did enjoy the symbolism of Rachel's pregnancy, however. The baby she is carrying represents the ultimate choice that she makes in regard to her life in the Badlands, and more importantly, her marriage. ( )
  silva_44 | Aug 25, 2013 |
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We Can; We Will!

Motto of the Ninth Cavalry

Again, I think it would be somewhat different
if it weren't for the wind. It blows and blows
until it makes me feel lonesome and so far away
from ... Illinois.

Oscar Michenaux,
South Dakota homesteader
For my husband, Ronald L. Weisgarber
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I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670022012, Hardcover)

An award-winning novel with incredible heart, about life on the prairie as it's rarely been seen

When Rachel, hired help in a Chicago boardinghouse, falls in love with Isaac, the boardinghouse owner's son, he makes her a bargain: he'll marry her, but only if she gives up her 160 acres from the Homestead Act so he can double his share. She agrees, and together they stake their claim in the forebodingly beautiful South Dakota Badlands.

Fourteen years later, in the summer of 1917, the cattle are bellowing with thirst. It hasn't rained in months, and supplies have dwindled. Pregnant, and struggling to feed her family, Rachel is isolated by more than just geography. She is determined to give her surviving children the life they deserve, but she knows that her husband, a fiercely proud former Buffalo Soldier, will never leave his ranch: black families are rare in the West, and land means a measure of equality with the white man. Somehow Rachel must find the strength to do what is right-for herself, and for her children.

Reminiscent of The Color Purple as well as the frontier novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:20 -0400)

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It is 1917 in the South Dakota Badlands and the summer has been hard. Rachel and Isaac DuPree had left Chicago fourteen years ago to stake their claim. Isaac, a former Buffalo Soldier, is fiercely proud: black families are rare in the West, and black ranchers even rarer. But it hasn't rained in months, the cattle are bellowing with thirst, and supplies have dwindled. Struggling to feed her family, Rachel is isolated by more than just geography. She is determined to give her surviving children the life they deserve, but Isaac will never leave his ranch: land means a measure of equality with the white man. Rachel must find the strength to do what is right--for her children, for her husband, and for herself.… (more)

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