August 2010

Adrienne So

fiction

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree attempts to answer a question so obvious that it's never even occurred to me: Why are there so few black people in some parts of the Midwest?

Think about it. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, a year into the Civil War. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the United States government -- including freed slaves -- could file an application and get 160 acres of land. Thousands of freed slaves were making their way up North, a lot of them sharecroppers from the Deep South. They had the skills. They had the will. And for the first time in their lives, they had the opportunity to hold land in their own name.

Why on Earth did the Harlem Renaissance not occur in South Dakota?

Weisgarber tries to answer that question by focusing on the story of Rachel DuPree, who starts out as Rachel Reeves, a young woman of twenty-five who is the hired help at Mrs. DuPree's boarding house near the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Mrs. DuPree's son, Isaac, comes back from the Civil War with a dream of starting a homestead. Isaac is a stone fox, and Rachel proposes a bargain behind his mother's back. If he marries her, he can double his land at one go. But she has to come with him. Isaac, somewhat surprisingly, agrees.

By the time the novel opens, Rachel has borne Isaac several children. Together, they've put together a small house, bought a new cookstove, and raised several hundred head of cattle and a couple of dogs. Rachel has a house of her own and a family she loves dearly. But a drought threatens the family's livelihood and the DuPrees find themselves struggling desperately to stay alive.

In the novel's opening scene, Rachel and Isaac are lowering their six-year-old, Liz, into their nearly dry well to fill buckets, cupful by torturous cupful, so that the family can drink. When they finally haul her out, the girl is hollow-eyed and shaking, traumatized, and crying about snakes. Liz probably won't be writing a romantically nostalgic memoir of life on the frontier, a la Willa Cather or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

That's the thing, though. I was surprised by the ending of the novel, when (spoiler alert!) Rachel decides to take her children and go back to Chicago without Isaac, who won't abandon the farm. Throughout Rachel's personal history, I was surprised, again and again, by how, well, whiny Rachel seemed to be -- at one point, swilling medicine that was meant to be for her children to try and forget her troubles, if only for a little while.

That's not the traditional narrative of the frontier woman, like Ingalls Wilder's Ma or Cather's Antonia. There's never a question of leaving. No matter how tough life gets, they tie up their hair, roll up their sleeves, and keep on working. By the end, their hands are a little rougher and their faces sunburned. Life has been hard on them, but they can still lean on their brooms and laugh in the wind. They have their precious daughters, precious land and the men they love. What is clean hair and a nice dress compared to that? They never, ever give up.

But Rachel's story isn't the traditional story, just because... well, she's black. And while the land doesn't care what color you are, the people around you sure do. Throughout the book is the overarching theme of incredible loneliness. Cather's Antonia was beautiful and beloved in Black Hawk, Nebraska, not the least by Jim Burden and his family. In the Little House books, Mary, Laura and baby Grace always sought help and company among their neighbors. When the land is so harsh, your friends and neighbors are your greatest source of comfort, and most of the best moments in frontier novels come during those rare, sweet moments when you can interact with other human beings -- Laura sharing maple sugar candy with her cousins at Christmas, or sitting by a river with the other young people of Black Hawk.

But Rachel's life is different. She has no close friends out on the frontier. Her neighbors are friendly, but there's a fundamental divide between them. In one scene, three white men deliver her new cookstove when Isaac isn't around. She flutters about nervously. Should she ask them to have tea? Do white people drink tea with black people out here? Are they wondering how they afforded such a nice cookstove? She is simultaneously thrilled and relieved when they tip their hat to her and leave, and why wouldn't she be? White people, just like these men, murdered her brother in race riots in Chicago.

At one point, she is so lonely that she invites Indians in to tea -- Indians! Bloodthirsty Indians, who are never more than nightmarish specters in the Little House books. Isaac, disgusted, tells her to never have Indians inside the house ever again. So much for that. The last straw that breaks Rachel's determination to stay is when Isaac unveils his plan to marry off their oldest daughter to a black farmer a little ways away. Even though the farmer is more than twice Mary's age, he's just the only other single black farmer for miles around.

Weisgarber's writing style is so plain that you could almost be fooled into thinking that Personal History is a young adult novel. For the record: It's not. It deals with themes like adultery, discrimination and miscegenation, which I wouldn't have understood at eight or ten.

By having Rachel leave Isaac, Weisgarber changes a key point in a quintessentially American narrative -- a narrative that, up until now, has centered almost exclusively on the experiences of white people. The traditional narrative would have Rachel's departure as a sign of weakness. But seen from Weisgarber's and Rachel's point of view, it's the ultimate sign of Rachel's determination, to not consign her daughters to a life without at least a dab of sweetness, as Rachel says.

Weisgarber's book is a little deficient in dabs of sweetness, itself. Rachel is constantly reminding herself to be grateful for what she has, which, in the end, turns out to be not so much. Stylistics aside, just by writing a novel that no one else has thought to write yet, Weisgarber has pushed a frontier herself. And now we know why there are no black people in South Dakota: Because, as Weisgarber points out, it was more than unusually hard for them out there. And still might be.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber


Viking
ISBN: 0670022012
336 Pages