Cover image for The personal history of Rachel Dupree
The personal history of Rachel Dupree
1st American ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, ; 2010, c2008.
Physical Description:
321 p. ; 21 cm.
Fourteen years have passed since Rachel and Isaac DuPree left Chicago to stake a claim in this unforgiving land. Isaac, a former Buffalo Soldier, is fiercely proud: black families are rare in the West, and black ranchers even rarer. But it hasn't rained in months, the cattle bellow with thirst, and supplies are dwindling.


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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.

Author Notes

Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio. She was a social worker before earning a master's degree in sociology at the University of Houston and becoming a teacher. She divides her time between Sugar Land and Galveston, Texas.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Enamored of Isaac DuPree (the son of her employer) and desperate for a life beyond that of boardinghouse cook in Chicago's slaughterhouse district, Rachel accepts a deal proffered by Isaac: join him in settling 160 acres of land offered by the Homestead Act in the wilds of South Dakota. She heads off to the aptly named Badlands in a bargained marriage of at least one year. Fourteen years later, she looks back over her life, the dreams and longing of a young woman versus the harsh reality of a wife and mother living in an unforgiving territory. After months of drought, the land, the animals, and her children are parched and on the brink. She herself is on the brink, pregnant again and coping with Isaac's obsession with the land, the cruel demands on their five young children, and the isolation of being one of the few black families in the territory. A shimmering novel of the sacrifice, hardship, and determination of a black family in the early-twentieth-century settlement of the West.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2010 Booklist

Guardian Review

Wild as it was, the American west was also a peculiarly democratic place, as a black man - or even a woman - was entitled to stake a claim. Still, there are few black ranchers in the Badlands of Dakota in 1917 where Rachel DuPree and her husband Isaac farm 320 acres of tumbleweed. "I hated the Badlands," Rachel laments, "the bigness of it, the never endingness of it, the lonesomeness of it, the weight of my hate bore down on me." Her story, shortlisted for the Orange new writers award, is a catalogue of drought, dirt, expiring cattle and still-born children that makes life in a Steinbeck novel seem rosy. But it's beautifully done, rendered in spare, un-showy prose as denuded as the Dakota earth; while Rachel is a marvellously realised creation, fiercely protective of her family and hardened to racist slights while at the same time appalled by her husband's contempt for "agency Indians" - Native Americans who receive government aid while settlers struggle to subsist. Which of course raises the question, whose land is it in the first place? Caption: article-pbfic30.1 Wild as it was, the American west was also a peculiarly democratic place, as a black man - or even a woman - was entitled to stake a claim. - Alfred Hickling.

Kirkus Review

In this debut novel, long-listed for the Orange Prize, a black family struggles to hold itself together in the South Dakota Badlands of 1917, tested by drought, racism and suspicion.The story opens with a striking scene that shows just how difficult the DuPrees have it: A two-month drought has forced Rachel, the family matriarch and novel's narrator, to send her six-year-old daughter down a well to gather enough water for the family. Rachel has been living on this arid farm for the past 14 years, moving from Chicago to follow her husband, Isaac, an Army veteran who took advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire and expand their property. Together they had seven children, five of which have survived the tough landscape, and Rachel is close to delivering another as the story begins. That tension set, Weisgarber shuttles the narrative back and forth in time, capturing Rachel's earlier life working in a boardinghouse for the black laborers at the Chicago stockyards. The owner of the boardinghouse, Rachel's future mother-in-law, is a no-nonsense promoter of black uplift (Ida B. Wells makes a cameo appearance), and deep-seated racial prejudices are a consistent theme, from the brutal race riots Rachel reads about in letters from home to the contempt Isaac has for the Native Americans he fought while in the Army. Still, most of the difficulties Rachel faces are of the domestic variety, such as keeping her children fed and healing a sick milk cow. Weisgarber's style is Alice Walker by way of Kent Haruf. She writes tenderly and with a tinge of spirituality when it comes to intimate family moments, and her spare descriptions evoke the simple territory in which the novel is set. That makes for clear storytelling, but overall the story feels curiously thin. The key plot complicationsa threat to Rachel's unborn child and a revelation about a past relationship of Isaac'sarrive and fade with only modest drama. The muted tone is intended to be a testament to Rachel's indomitability, but it makes her narrator as little different psychologically at story's end as she was at the beginning.Admirably crisp prose within a disappointingly slight study of race and family.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

During a 1917 drought in the Dakota Badlands, many settlers up and leave their claims. Not Isaac DuPree. He commands his wife and five children to persevere. Fourteen years ago, Rachel worked as kitchen help in the Chicago boardinghouse of Isaac's mother. When Isaac, a former Buffalo soldier, decided to start homesteading, he took Rachel as a wife so he could amass more land. For Rachel, their marriage was a love match. But Isaac's land fever knows no bounds, and Rachel's endurance begins to slip when her husband endangers one of their daughters by tying her to a rope and dropping her into a near-dry water well. Expecting their sixth child, Rachel suspects her husband may have fathered a half-Indian child while serving at Wounded Knee. Yet Isaac hates Indians. Facing a difficult winter with little foodstuff saved, Rachel ponders returning to Chicago. Verdict Compelling historical fiction at its best, with appeal factors similar to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain or Breena Clark's Stand the Storm, this debut novel won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction.-Keddy Ann Outlaw, formerly with Harris County P.L., Houston, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.