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

The backstory: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was longlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize.

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

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Personal History of Rachel DuPree from Amazon. Want more opinions? Check out the full tour schedule.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I just got this one in the mail yesterday, and I am so excited to get the chance to read it. It does sound excellent, and like something that I am going to love. Like you, I am constantly surprised by how much I have been drawn to Westerns! Great review on this one!

  2. I got this one in the mail the other day as well. I am looking forward to reading it. Glad you enjoyed it. Makes me all the more anxious to get to it.

  3. I loved this in audio (reviewed it in March). I'm so glad to see it get the attention it deserves.

  4. Thank you for offering a giveaway of this book! I have been wanting to read this book for 2 YEARS and I can never find it in a bookstore. Glad to hear it is so awesome!

  5. I spent some of my formative early teen years in South Dakota and it really made pioneer narratives feel different having experienced the plains, bad lands, the wind, the snow -- I'm starting this next week -- so glad you enjoyed it!!

  6. This one caught my eye a few weeks ago so I am glad to see your review and giveaway!

  7. I didn't think I'd be interested this because Im not so into westerns or pioneering topics, but this does sound good and I really like that quote you included!

  8. Great review! I was really taken with Rachel as well. Her thoughts and feelings were just so real to me. I agree that the author really pulled you into this story and made you feel as though you were experiencing the drought and famine. This was such a well done novel. I'm glad you enjoyed it as well.

  9. I've never read ANYTHING like this - apparently it's a genre I need to try!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  10. Thank you for this wonderful review and for the terrific rating. I'm thrilled.

    You mention the homesickness theme in your review and you're the first reviewer to do so. When I first thought about the story of Rachel DuPree, I was living in Des Moines (Yeah, Iowa!). I was very homesick during the first few years there but I had the luxery of being able to call home and to make the occasional trip back to Texas. Homesteaders did not have that luxery. Many left home knowing they'd never return. Often there were months between letters. Those people were truly courageous.

    I'm delighted you were willing to give a western-themed novel a try. Have you read Paulette Jile's The Color of Lightning? Or Thomas Cobb's Shavetail? I love both of these novels that break the boundaries of the traditional western.


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