Tuesday 17 January 2012

The personal history of Rachel DuPree

I have been listening to an audiobook of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber over the last few days. It was picked out at the library to accompany my knitting, and to go with my Orange January challenge because it was on the Orange Prize long list of 2009.

It tells the story of Rachel, a young black woman who moves from urban Chicago to become a homesteader in South Dakota at the turn of the 20th century. This is the kind of book where detailed research was the key since the author is describing a life utterly different from her own, and that is most impressive since I found the voice of Rachel very authentic. The description of their harsh and difficult life was vivid and the sweetnesses that she wishes for for her children are few and far between. The story itself covers a period of a few weeks, the ending of a drought, the coming of the rain and the imminent arrival of a new baby. In between the current events Rachel tells the story of her previous life and how she came to be married to Isaac DuPree. There is a lot of stuff going on around the story; the issue of racism and race riots that are far away but impact on her family, her sense of being an 'outsider' in the homestead community, but then the way her husband despises the 'Indians', for being drunks and dependent on the white people. It is essentially a story about disappointment and I was left feeling a little hopeless and heartbroken. Isaac thinks that by owning land and working hard he will be accepted as an equal, but that never happens. Rachel marries and enters a contract with Isaac to claim the farmland and thinks that by working hard and doing everything he asks of her he will accept her as a real partner, but that never happens either. It is told by Rachel so we only have her hopes and dreams, her ideas of what life might open up for her and you grow to feel a strong bond with her. She has all these wonderful positive qualities, love, strength, loyalty, endurance, trust, but I felt they were wasted on Isaac. He still blames her for things that go wrong, and never gives her any reason to feel that he values her. She calls it pulling together, but it amounts to her giving way in any disagreement. He never acknowledges her contribution, she has no rights to the land or wealth in her own right, he never includes her in making decisions about the farm or land purchases. He insists on buying a wedding band for her, that she finds sentimental and slightly romantic, a symbol of their being married, but in reality to him it is simply a sign that she is his chattel, as she finally learns at the very end. He appears to make choices on what is right for him and his plans, hardly taking the needs of the family into consideration at all. What the story speaks about most is the position of women in that period, it predates any kind of suffrage movement and the attitudes and conventions are all very restrictive and controlling. When she works as a cook at the boarding house she sees her only way out is to find a man of ambition to marry her, there are no routes for a woman without education to better herself, and few routes for women to be educated. When married she submits to Isaac's decisions even when they have bad outcomes. The only hopeful symbol (in a novel ripe with symbolism) is when Mrs Fills the Pipe comes to her aid when she is alone and in labour, saving her life when the baby is stuck. It is a moment of women bonding together through need, in spite of the male-created antipathy that had divided them, and coming to a new understanding of each other's lives. Despite being left a bit despondent at the end this book was beautifully written, so atmospheric, a wonderful tale of an old life.


  1. Thank you so much for listening to Rachel DuPree and for this lovely review. The actress did a beautiful job with the reading, and I was a little breathless by the end. It took me about a year to find the courage to listen to it. I had the voices fixed firmly in my imagination, and it was odd to hear a different rendition.

    That's the fun of literature. Every reader brings her own point of view to each book.

  2. I've read a few reviews of this book and I've been considering reading it (even though it is outside my normal tastes) because some of my family lives in South Dakota.


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