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.
-Viola Davis, Academy Award-nominated and Tony Award-winning actress
“A rousing gallop with African American pioneers settling in the South Dakota Badlands.”
“An eye-opening look at the little explored area of a black frontier woman in the American West.”
“A captivating twist on the familiar pioneer story [that] is ambitious for a first novel, and it triumphs.”
-Richmond Times Dispatch
“Emotionally arresting…Vivid and expressive…A compelling story that at times will leave the reader breathless.”
“This debut novel…offers taut writing and an unusual subject.”
“Deeply affecting… The title character, reminiscent of Celie in The Color Purple, is an unassuming heroine with true grit and deep-seated dignity.”
-San Antonio Express-News
“Emotionally enveloping…Reminiscent of the iconic Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder… The story is captivating, and will dig deep into the hearts of its readers.”
-WOSU (Ohio NPR affiliate)
“A shimmering novel of the sacrifice, hardship, and determination of a black family in the early twentieth-century settlement of the West.”
“Striking…Admirably crisp… Weisgarber’s style is Alice Walker by way of Kent Haruf.”
“By writing a novel that no one else has thought to write yet, Weisgarber has pushed a frontier herself [and] changes a key point in a quintessentially American narrative-a narrative that, up until now, has centered almost exclusively on the experiences of white people.”
“Compelling historical fiction at its best, with appeal factors similar to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or Breena Clark’s Stand the Storm.”
-Library Journal, starred review
“A stunning novel-so accomplished, insightful, and deeply affecting that it is hard to believe it is a debut. Rachel will capture your imagination, break your heart, and inflame your hope.”
-Ellen Feldman, author of Scottsboro and Lucy
“An indelibly affecting teaching story: How unchecked selfish desires, regardless of their origins in historical cruelty and deprivation, lead inevitably to suffering. A suffering that can be alleviated only by the realization of a pure love for others greater than one’s desires for self. Rachel and Isaac DuPree and their tiny, vulnerable family stand as monuments to the forgotten millions of brutal, spirit deforming choices made and endured by so many brave and deeply wounded Americans.”
“It is through our fiction that Americans have best honored the diversity and richness of our culture and history. In The Personal History of Rachel DuPree Ann Weisgarber tells the story of an African American family struggling to survive in the Dakota Badlands with a vividness and intensity by turns heart-breaking and thrilling. It is a story of human betrayal and human love, and a woman you will not soon forget.”
-Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek
“An essential American story etched in vividly remarkable prose, of a unique period in our history, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree beats with the timeless heart of human endeavors, yet drops us seamlessly into particular spaces and times, a grand achievement of the first rate. Some will call this a novel of race, some will see the futility of the dustbowl settlement, some will believe it to be a tale of a strong woman. It’s all of these and so much more, most clearly a tale that will hold and resonate on many levels.”
-Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
“Ann Weisgarber has written an astonishing novel of the pioneering West-a novel as beautiful, profound, and unsentimental as those of Rolvaag and Cather. And yet her story feels brand new, its insights into race in America poignant and timely. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is the finest novel I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read her next one.”
-Lin Enger, author of Undiscovered Country
“Ann Weisgarber has taken a solitary haunting image and created an entire family and hard landscape and an indomitable character, Rachel DuPree, whom I worried about for several days as I raced through this novel. Rachel’s story has never been told, and she is a singular heroine in a vivid and heartless world.”
-Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon and A Million Nightingales
“The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a wonderful addition to the literature of the Great Plains. Ann Weisgarber not only locates a bright, clear voice in that vast, silent region but does so in a much-neglected part of its population. This is a brave, lovely novel.”
-Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948 and Orchard
“In The Personal History of Rachel DuPree Ann Weisgarber has created characters of great strength and dignity in an exciting, fast moving novel about courage in the face of the terrible truth. You will inhabit the lives of these characters as you read the novel, and long after you’re done, the characters will inhabit your life. This is a tremendous start in what will be a fine career for Ann Weisgarber. She’s a great storyteller.”
-Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart and Shavetail
“Beautifully done, rendered in spare, un-showy prose as denuded as the Dakota earth; while Rachel is a marvellously realised creation.”
“Vintage Americana, as chilling as Cold Mountain.”
“A gem . . . Pride and prejudice are the prevalent themes running through this book. From the dramatic first chapter it’s a powerful story of courage in the face of adversity.”
Q. This novel captures a slice of history that many Americans know little about. How did you become interested in writing about African American ranchers in South Dakota?
I've always been drawn to the West. During one of my trips to the South Dakota Badlands, I came across a photograph of a woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. Three things about the photo caught my attention. The woman was alone, she was unnamed, and she was African American. Until then, I hadn't been aware of African American settlers in the West. I did some research and discovered there were African American cowboys and soldiers. I dug deeper and found bits and pieces about black pioneer families. The photographed woman must have been one of those people, and it bothered me that history had overlooked her story. I gave her a name, Rachel DuPree, and began to write.
Q. Given that Rachel DuPree or her real–life counterparts are unlikely to be found in textbooks, “personal history” is an apt title for this book. Can you talk about what it means to you?
The title was the inspiration of one of my editors. Initially I wasn't thrilled with it—I was concerned the word "history" might imply the book was nonfiction—but I've grown to love it. The personal details of Rachel DuPree's story are hers alone. Yet her history is shared by many of the forgotten women who bore the hardships of being pioneers.
During my research, I found an African American couple in South Dakota whose names were Isaac and Rachel. I also found another couple whose last name was DuPree. I combined the names to honor those Americans. I did the same for three of the Indian characters. Mrs. Fills the Pipe, Inez, and Luther were the names of people I found while researching the Sioux.
Q. The language in this novel is spare and unadorned, almost reflecting the DuPrees' open, unspoiled stretch of land. As you wrote this book, did the landscape consciously inform your prose style?
I didn't have a choice. The landscape is such a dominant force that everything else feels small and insignificant. My spare language is my reaction to the Badlands' harsh but beautiful landscape. It is my response to its complicated history that is layered with hope and with heartbreak. It also fits Rachel and Isaac, whose determination to achieve better futures for themselves and for their children dominates all other concerns.
The dialogue between Rachel and Isaac is also spare. Their days are spent together; there wouldn't be all that much to discuss. They rely on nonverbal communication. The unspoken is as meaningful as the spoken.
My writing style is somewhat different in the Chicago scenes. The descriptions are more detailed and the dialogue includes longer sentences. That is my way of reflecting Rachel's youth and the busyness of her life in a city.
Q. You capture so many interesting details throughout, from the way Rachel keeps house to the fact that ranchers never eat steak. How did you conduct research for this novel? Did you research before you wrote the story or did you write first and research later?
I researched as I wrote and every page reflects research. I found it impossible to write a scene unless I knew the details were right. The most helpful written resources were children's nonfiction books. The details were well explained and included illustrations. Often the research led to unexpected discoveries. Whilereading about Chicago and slaughterhouses, I stumbled across Ida B. Wells–Barnett. When I was reading about the Dakota Sioux, I became interested in the children who went to boarding schools and who were then assimilated into the white culture.
I was fortunate to have a writing residency at Badlands National Park. This was a chance to talk to people who lived there. A woman who grew up on a cattle ranch told me she'd never tasted steak until she was in her midtwenties. Another woman said there was more to Native Americans than the stereotypical image of warriors. In some form, much of this information found its way into the book.
Q. Was it challenging to take on the point of view of a young African American woman in the early twentieth century, or did you find that Rachel DuPree's voice came naturally to you?
It was a challenge. I had to step back in time to see the world as people did in 1917. I had to shake off modern ideas about marriage, child rearing, race, and prejudice. I had to learn about 1917 black culture and experiences.
When I started the rough draft, there was one thing I knew for certain about Rachel DuPree. She had dignity. As I worked through each draft, Rachel's voice appeared. Isaac was also difficult, and in the early drafts I didn't feel comfortable with him. Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her daughter, Inez, were other challenges. Native Americans have often been misrepresented in literature as stereotypes. I did not want to do that to these characters.
I wasn't in a rush while writing this novel and that allowed the voices to come to me.
Q. In some ways this is a narrow slice of history, yet the themes you explore are universal. Do you see this book as belonging to a particular literary tradition?
I see the book as literary historical fiction. The themes of commitment, ambition, sacrifice, and prejudice are layered throughout the story. The norms and values of 1917 shape the characters' beliefs and responses, and historical figures, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Ida B. Wells–Barnett, impact the characters.
Q. By the standards of her time and social class, Rachel DuPree is a very independent–minded woman. Do you consider her a feminist?
I don't see Rachel DuPree as a feminist but rather as a woman who understands the norms of her era and works around them. She rarely challenges Isaac's opinions, she doesn't have money of her own, and she's tied to the cookstove and to child–rearing duties. Her defiance of Isaac is indirect. She keeps things to herself and makes her own decisions. During my research, I read diaries written by women. The ability to work around their husbands was a common theme.
Q. Isaac DuPree is a fascinating figure—for all of his blind ambition and callousness he is still charming and, at times, affectionate. How did his character evolve over the course of writing the book?
I'm quite fond of Isaac, although I had to write many drafts before I understood his character. Initially, he kept disappearing off the page because I wasn't sure what to do with him. When I eventually realized he was shaped by his military training and that he was desperate to prove his worth, his character grew. Isaac became a man of his times. He does not discuss feelings or worry about the happiness of his children. He became a man of the West. He is willing to make any sacrifice to keep his land.
Q. You've been a teacher and a social worker. How did these experiences prepare you to be a novelist? How did you decide to pursue writing as a career?
As a social worker and as a teacher, I learned to listen to what was said and what wasn't. My background in sociology pushed me to think about my characters as people of their times. It's natural to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. People don't live in vacuums and nor should characters. Rachel and Isaac are influenced by newspaper headlines as well as by events from the past.
Social class and prejudice are themes I especially like, although it is nerve–racking to write about them. The revelation of ugly prejudices in plain language is not comfortable. I had to remind myself that in 1917 a white woman would call Isaac "boy." I had to remember that in 1917 many people had negative opinions about Native Americans. Rachel and Isaac were not exceptions. I had to write about Native Americans as my characters saw them.
I decided to write a novel simply to see if I could. I didn't think about publication. Rather, I focused on the personal challenge of writing a beginning, a middle, and an end. After a few years of this, my thoughts shifted and I wanted to write the best book I was capable of writing. Eventually, I decided to see if publication was a possibility.
Q. For a first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is extremely ambitious. What do you look for in a novel subject, and what's next for you?
I enjoy stepping out of my own world and into the past. I'm interested in social class and power struggles. I'm currently working on a novel that takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas. The story revolves around a college–educated woman who marries a dairy farmer. The story begins two months before the 1900 storm, the historical hurricane that killed more than six thousand people.