Ann Weisgarber’s debut tells an engaging fictional story about an African-American woman homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands during the early 20th Century. Her presence in the unsettled American West is due to the handsome Buffalo Soldier Isaac DuPree, whom she meets in 1903 while working as the cook for his mother’s Chicago boarding house. Rachel overhears Isaac’s intent to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and makes a bargain with him: Isaac can have her 160 acres of public land allotted to her — as it is allotted to every man and unmarried woman — but he must marry her and take her with him.
When the book opens, it is 14 years later and the summer of a severe drought. Their cattle are dying, food supplies are low, and the hot wind marks their bodies and those of their five children with the land’s grit. Isaac is dropping their six-year-old daughter Liz into the well to scrape water from the bottom, while Rachel, hugely pregnant, looks on, frightened but trusting. She and Isaac have built their 2,500 acre Circle D ranch together, winning respect and equality from neighboring white settlers.
Weisgarber portrays their hardship on the prairie with narrative allure reminiscent of the iconic Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She delivers the message that land ownership and strength of character determined a pioneering man’s status, not his color; however, Weisgarber tells the message of color more than she shows it. For much of the book, you wouldn’t know her characters are African-American by picking it up and reading a random page. Neither their speaking voices nor their actions illustrate their ethnicity.
The flaw didn’t distract me from my compulsive reading. Rachel’s narrating voice is strong, vivid in its depictions of a harsh pioneering life and emotionally enveloping. She understands and lives the courage it takes to survive in the Badlands’ unforgiving prairie, but she also recognizes when that courage turns in on itself and ignores reason. Eventually Rachel realizes Isaac puts his family second to their ranch. When she gives birth without Isaac present, she reaches a point of despair and goes against the wishes of Isaac to protect herself and her children.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree urgently moves forward with clear, absorbing prose, making it hard to put down. It was long-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the Orange Award for New Writers. This captivating novel will dig deep into the hearts of its readers.