The basics: Aptly titled, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is the story of Rachel DuPree, a young black woman in Chicago (albeit a Louisiana native) who marries at the age of 25 and sets off for the Badlands of South Dakota with her new husband as a homesteader.
My thoughts: I'm beginning to realize how much I love westerns. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree isn't a shoot 'em style western by any means, but it is a fascinating tale of life on the frontier. I was captivated by the DuPrees' voyage. This novel is also the story of a marriage on the frontier. It's the story of a family. Indeed, there is a certain added intrigue that Rachel and Isaac are black. The new hope of the frontier, even the inhospitable Badlands of South Dakota, is especially poignant for a black couple. Still, on the farm itself, race often becomes irrelevant: "Accidents happened everywhere; I knew that. It wasn't just the Badlands, but it seemed to me that accidents and death were harder to bear here." Dire straits may have forced the hands of some of the white characters in this book to be more open to the DuPrees, and this tale is certainly not without racism, but it's not a story about their race.
The novel begins in South Dakota in the midst of a horrible drought, but Weisgarber takes the reader back to the beginning of Rachel and Isaac's courtship through a couple of well-timed flashbacks. Rachel's life as a cook in a men's boardinghouse (owned by Isaac's mother) was fascinating, and after being immersed in life on a farm in a drought, seemed downright chipper.
Part of what I instantly loved in this novel was Weisgarber's ability to cut through space, time and character to offer descriptions of the human condition:
"But maybe there was a spot of kindness buried somewhere in her heart. She had a son of her own far away from home. Maybe she understood that a man needed to lean against a kitchen wall. Watching a woman tidy up was good for homesickness."Homesickness is a recurring theme in the novel: "Same thing, I thought, once homesickness takes root. A person wanted to be anywhere but where she was." The focus on homesickness is part of what makes this novel, and Rachel herself, so easy to relate to. My mother often says she would not have been a good pioneer woman. It's no secret I wouldn't be either, yet Weisgarber continually made me feel like I was sharing Rachel's experience. It felt real, which was both terrifying and exciting.
Favorite passage: "Our children needed something to fall back on during hard times. Isaac thought land was enough. I knew different. During hard times a person had to be able to say that it wasn't always so hard. A person needed to say, Once I played hopscotch with girls my age, once I played baseball with boys like me, and once I sang and clapped my hands at a neighborhood dance."
The verdict: Rachel DuPree is a character who will stick with me for quite some time. I was mesmerized by her story, and her strength of conviction, love and devotion inspire me. Highly recommended.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 306 pages
Publication date: August 12, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours
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