Monday, June 13, 2011
Black Woman in the Badlands -- A Book Review
Hi Meltingpot Readers,
I just finished an awesome novel called, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber. Once again I was drawn in by the arresting cover of a Black woman in a white dress, presumably somewhere out on some prairie. I quickly read the jacket cover and was struck by the final paragraph:
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.
Okay, so any book that is compared to both The Color Purple and Little House on the Prairie, immediately has me hooked. What a juxtaposition, right? And I wasn't disappointed. The book tells the story of Rachel DuPree, who at age 25 works as a cook in a Black-owned boarding house in Chicago. Originally from Louisiana, her father was a slave, but the family moved North for better prospects. Although she had to quit school in the eighth grade, Rachel has great expectations for herself and without giving too much away, ends up marrying the educated son of the boardinghouse owner. Together the two of them go stake their claim for 160 acres of land in South Dakota as part of the Homestead Act.
By the time we meet Rachel, many years have past since she left Chicago and she's become a frontier woman. Her earlier years are told in flashback, but the action that keeps the pages turning revolves around survival in the Badlands. Drought, harsh winters, hunger, sick cattle, and hungry children are all part of every day life. What's not a big issue, refreshingly, is racism. I mean it underlies the choices that Rachel and her husband make, but really it is the story of every American who wanted to use the land to make something of him or herself. I just loved it because these were Black people in a situation that we never see Black people in. We don't hear this part of the Black American experience. I read the book in chunks every night and then found myself imagining myself in Rachel's shoes the next day as I weeded my puny garden, fed my kids and wondered if the baby I'm carrying in my belly would be harmed when I had to go outside to close our garage in the middle of a wicked storm last week. You know, man against nature and all that. (Note: Rachel is very pregnant when the story opens. So I felt especially kindred).
The book is incredibly well written, the characters unique and the voices believable. The sensory descriptions of the drought will have you spitting grit as you read along. Even though I knew the author was White, by the end of the book I had to check again to make sure as she really captured, not only Rachel's voice but her inner-most thoughts as well. Which I guess goes to show how universal the human experience really is, despite the color of our skin.
Read this book! You won't be disappointed.