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.
Weisgarber's atmospheric if unexceptional debut of pioneering hardships follows a staunch South Dakota farmwife as she struggles with misgivings about her ambitious husband. The story begins as Rachel DuPree, wife of one of the only African-American ranchers in the Badlands in 1917, watches her husband, Isaac, lower their six-year-old daughter, Liz, down a well to fetch water in the midst of a terrible drought. Though she concedes it must be done, Rachel heavily pregnant with her eighth child is distraught, and her worries set off a chain reaction of second-guessing her loyalty to Isaac, whose schemes include buying out the neighboring ranch and leaving the family to find work during the winter. As a series of calamities befall the family, Rachel must decide whether to follow the only man she has ever loved or strike a new path of her own. Rachel's homely voice isn't the most inviting, and while the racial tensions between whites, blacks, and Native Americans is pretty surface-level, Weisgarber's depiction of survival in the harsh Badlands has its moments.
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There were moments of this book that left me breathless, but it was slow to start, and I'm not sure I am satisfied with the ending. It certainly gives one a clear sense of the hardship and sacrifice faced by homesteaders at the turn of the century. The general concept of telling the story from a black woman's perspective was what intrigued me and led me to this purchase, but the book didn't really shed any new light on what life was like for blacks in the badlands. I was more interested in the scenes set in Chicago.