The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

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The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A story of a family's endurance in the Badlands of South Dakota in the early twentieth century. An engrossing read, shortlisted for the 2009 Orange New Writer award. Book groups might well want to pick up this book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Pan
ISBN: 978-0330458559

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Do you remember reading The Red Pony at school? If you shed tears at John Steinbeck's short masterpiece, be sure to find time for this story of rural hardship from new American author, Ann Weisgarber. I thought The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was a stunning read, with more than a nod at Steinbeck, yet enough distance to place the writer in her own territory. The two settings, Chicago and South Dakota, convinced me of their authenticity immediately. The family grabbed my sympathy from the opening scene and every character was satisfyingly 3-D. Unsurprising, then, that this novel took seven years to write.

Farming is a hard way of life in 1917, and the family ranch painstakingly acquired by Isaac DuPree has no room for passengers, even children. The story opens with six year old Liz sent down the well to scoop up the last of the water at the bottom. She is terrified by a snake, but Isaac makes her repeat the experience. He is a hard man, but there is a drought, and his family are starving and dehydrated. Liz and her four siblings have little opportunity to play and six is old enough to put away childish things in the fight for survival. Only the very young ones have a rag doll apiece. John and Mary, the older two, work full time, and like Jody in The Red Pony, learn from the death of an animal that emotion has no place on a ranch.

Isaac, an ex-soldier, claimed his portion of land in the Badlands of South Dakota and we see the harsh climate and inhospitable earth, reminiscent of the setting for The Grapes of Wrath. But there is worse. The family are isolated by the lack of other settlers in this land of scarcity. In times of need, the next neighbour is a morning's walk away. When Isaac leaves to buy cattle, John and Mary are faced with delivering their mother's baby, a horrifying loss of innocence for them.

The DuPrees are black, which exacerbates their isolation. Isaac thin slices status, so that we become aware of the various social gradations associated with black skin colour. As a 'negro' he expects discrimination from the other pioneers who are white. Mostly, however, he is treated with the respect due to his accomplishments, which rings true to life. In his turn, Isaac despises Mrs Fills the Pipe, the squaw, even though he fathered her child. As a complex theme, it's subtly and surely handled.

Rachel says, Isaac was a man of ambition ... He hadn't just pulled me up, he'd pulled himself up. The land had done that for him. He believed it would do the same for our children. He'd never let go of it. Today I suppose we'd call him an alpha male, a man who demands success of himself and his family. That this attitude threatens their very existence by starvation is less important to Isaac than his ambition as a land-owner. His greed for status transcends any concern for his family's health and well-being, his responsibility to provide resources for everyday living, and his relationship with his wife. Rachel understands that her five surviving children need a dab of sweetness to leaven their harsh childhood and has to reconcile this with her loyalty to her marriage. Ultimately Rachel is in the same situation as contemporary women who find their families dragged into the undertow of their high-flying partner's selfish ambitions. Her options are limited by time and place, which detracts nothing from the modern relevance of this ninety year old story.

Congratulations, Macmillan New Writing, on finding Ann Weisgarber for us, and thank you for sending a copy of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this book I'd recommend The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles. Set only a few years later, it's a similarly well-researched, well-written rural story set in Brazil. That is, of course, if I haven't sent you ferreting out your coffee-stained John Steinbeck …

Booklists.jpg The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber is in the Top Ten Books For Your Girlfriend.

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