I broke my own rule while reading The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber - I flipped forward and read ahead. And then went back to slowly enjoy the story of Rachel DuPree. I became so invested in her trials and tribulations that I had to know what was going to happen next.
It's 1917 and a terrible drought has struck the Badlands in South Dakota. Rachel DuPree, her husband Isaac and their children are struggling to survive this latest hardship. For Isaac, there is no question - he will prevail. His goal has been the land all along and he will not give up. But Rachel is struggling. She's given birth to seven children, lost two and has another on the way. When Isaac lowers one of her girls down the well to get what little water remains, it seems to be a breaking point. Rachel questions her life, what is best for her children and her relationship with the man who is her husband.
In flashbacks we learn how Isaac and Rachel came to be homesteaders in this brutal environment. Rachel is a cook in a boarding house. While she believes she is in love with the dashing son of the owner, Isaac sees it as a business proposition - Rachel can apply for another 160 acres of land from the Homestead Act.
"I stared until my eyes blurred. It was so big. All that land and sky, all that openness; there was no end to any of it. It made me feel small. It gave me a bad feeling. I didn't belong; this place called for bigger things than me."
Weisgarber has written a story rich with emotion, detail and history. Relationships are explored - that of Rachel and her husband, the sense of belonging and homesickness. The history of settlers in this area has been explored, but not really from the point of view of black settlers. Rachel faces predjudice from many sides - that of 'upper class' blacks, whites and the native Americans as well. Isaac's view of the natives was an eye opener - he bristles at his treatment at the hand of whites, yet considers himself above the natives. I really enjoyed the physical details of everyday life and what it took to stake a claim - the dreams, the hopes and the aspirations. The setting is a character in the book as well, the wind, the dust and the grit almost tangible in Weisgarber's descriptions.
I think I enjoyed this book so much as the character of Rachel reminded me of Addy Shadd, the protagonist in one of my favourite books - Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. The strength it takes to move continually forward despite unforgiving odds. The pleasure of finding joy amongst the troubles. The courage to make difficult decisions. And the determination to keep going.
As Rachel says: "I admired the feel of a book. I opened the book and held it to each girl's nose. I alwasy believed that smelling the pages of a book took a person into the story." I lost myself in Rachel's story. Read an excerpt.