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on 7 August 2009
Gripping tale of love and loss in the Badlands (and they were really bad), early last century. Everyone needs a little 'sweetness' in their lives but for Rachel hers is one long slog to fight the elements and keep her children alive. There's loyalty and there's life and she'd rather that than her husband's pride. As a black man coming from nothing, his determination to own his own land and accumulate more as a way of earning respect is admirable - but at what cost? This is a great story beautifully written.
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on 24 July 2009
It's hard to believe that this powerfully written and well-constructed book can be a first novel.
It's short enough to read in one sitting; you won't want to break the mood once you're absorbed in it.
Set in 1917, in the unforgiving South Dakota Badlands, it focuses on a few months in the life of Rachel DuPree, wife of one of the very few black ranchers, a man completely obsessed with land ownership, his measure of equality with the white man. He married for land; he would sell his daughter for land; and yet we can understand Rachel's love for her proud husband. Isaac's unforgiving loathing of the native Indians puzzled me but, finally, Weisgarber explains it in one succinct sentence - and it all falls into place. (It would spoil it to explain, it takes your breath away.)
The novel starts with an immensely powerful scene when the parents drop their terrified 6yo daughter down a drought-stricken well, to scoop up the last few cupfuls of water; knowing they will have to make her do it again because only a small child can be winched up again. An amazing book.
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on 17 June 2009
Just sometimes I read a book which makes me slow up and savour every word and this was one of them. I have a shelf of books which I keep to re read one day in my dotage and this is definitely heading for it. It explores vast ideas of love, life, motherhood, American cultural history and a whole lot more in beautifully understated language. A brilliant story which sears images into your head which will stay there. The opening sequence picture of the little girl and the well is poignant beyond belief... prepare to be hooked in from page one. Loved it.

PS I read the comment saying it was like Catherine Cookson's writing and I couldn't disagree more... The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is intelligent writing for readers who like space to imagine for themselves and to identify their own poignancies.
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on 29 July 2008
The most amazing book I've read in a long time-a novel set in 1917 in the South Dakota Badlands,and told from the perspective a Negro woman, Rachel living a life of unbelievable hardship on an isolated ranch with her ex-soldier husband Isaac.
Married as a business arrangement,they have a family- he will never leave the ranch because he feels he will no longer be equal with the remailning white ranchers and will lose face. There is a drought, a baby is on the way......
Rachel must decide where her loyalties lie- to her husband or to her children- should she return to Chicago?
Set against the 1917 race riots and war in Europe,this novel is thought provoking and told from a unique point of view.
Please beg, borrow or steal a copy!!
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This novel is on the long list for the Orange Prize 2009, I really hope it makes the shortlist.

A really fabulous read with a main character who I loved and rooted for every step of the way. A fascinating look at the life of Negroe families in the Badlands, South Dakota at the turn of the last century. Their hard lives and how they survived.

There are some fantastic characters throughout the story - the detail of the writing is wonderful. I found it really hard to put this down.
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on 28 January 2013
The Personal History Of Rachel Dupree is a first person autobiography style novel describing the life and current circumstances of the protagonist.

Seduced by the impressive nature of her boss's son, Rachel makes a bargain with him to become his wife. Fresh out of the Army, Isaac is taken with the idea that even with his status as a black man post Civil War America he can be granted land of his own to farm, and does so in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Not unlike The Grass Is Singing, which I read earlier in the month, Rachel soon finds that her husbands ambitions outweigh his ability or capacity to achieve them, surrounded by children and living in abject poverty, Rachel begins to question her choices.

Ann Weisgarber was inspired to write the novel after seeing a photograph of a black woman on a homestead in the Badlands and investigating what seemed like an unusual phenomenon. It was extremely rare but it did happen, and therefore has an original and unique story angle to come from.

Like, The Grass Is Singing however, despite having an important and worthwhile story to tell it is relentlessly desperate and grim. A portrait of the souring of dreams.
Just as a turning point comes in the life of Rachel and her children, the novel slams shut, finishing at a point where I certainly felt there was far more story left to be told and that the novel deserved a different, more rounded ending.

This novel fits into a whole sub genre of novels about the plight of the black person in America throughout history and as such it is a good one. If those sort of novels are a particular interest to you then I certainly recommend it, yet I as a reader felt cheated by what is essentially an incomplete personal history. 7/10
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on 22 August 2008
"I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over the well." So begins the powerful new book by Ann Weisgarber with its longing for a place and a time past and, also, for Liz who will remain in our minds precarious and forever over that well in the Dakota Badlands with her bony six-year-old frame and her worry that wearing her brother's hand-me-downs would make her a boy.

Rachel DuPree, the narrator hero of the book and Liz's mother, is a "Negro" woman from Chicago at the turn of the 20th century--a generation removed from official slavery though struggling with its practical and psychological aftereffects, nevertheless. Hers is the story of an escape and a bargain during which--through which--she matures from a simple girl to a woman of experience and character.

Rachel, a girl of the city, moves to the Badlands with her Army veteran black husband, Isaac, whom she meets first when he returns from the war in Cuba and steals her heart with his blue uniform and proud carriage and gentlemanly bow and creased map of the West and dream of a new start. Isaac is "even taller and fairer than his mother," Mrs. Elizabeth DuPree, for whom Rachel works. Mrs. DuPree, the owner of the DuPree Boarding House for Negro Men in Chicago, the one with "standards" who takes only the men who work the day shift at the slaughterhouses. Mrs. Elizabeth DuPree of sharp looks and fine meals who feels responsible for "advancing the respectability of hard-working Negroes" and who--channeling some of the finest Jane Austen characters and transporting them a troubled century forward--will not likely forgive Rachel, a dark-skinned girl of lower class, for marrying her son--that ultimate betrayal.

The book is so populated by honest characters and moments and settings, it is hard to know which one to highlight. There are the men of the Boarding House with "spirits worn down by the butchering of screaming animals" and sustained by Rachel's pies and memories of a "back home" where "[n]eighbors were friendly, bosses were fair, and the girls were the prettiest in the world."

There is, once Rachel and Isaac arrive in the Badlands and set up house and a family, the unforgiving harshness of nature, draught and dust devils and deep empty wells and grit in the eyes but also beauty--the smell of wood, fresh-cut lumber used in building a shelter with "raw crispness that made a person think about the goodness of the Earth."

There is the gentleness of a mother and daughter singing a lullaby in the barn as a beloved milk cow lies dying and then, as though there is no time to waste in getting to the living, a dance in the same spot, a formal dance by the daughter as though at a prom.

Life is here denominated one bucket of water and mouthful of milk at a time. Wisdom is here borne of hard work. "There are all kinds of ways to earn respect," Isaac reminds Rachel as they sacrifice to buy more land and as she considers the bargain she has made in coming to the Badlands with a man she hardly knew. "A man can't ever have too much. Especially if that man's black."

In the midst of this struggle walks another character, a delightfully-named Squaw woman--Mrs. Fills the Pipe--who weaves through the tale as a thread with her own personal history and a past and future interlaced with our hero's. And others: shopkeepers, townspeople, old Army buddies of Isaac, homesteaders black and white, and another Indian woman with a child--an apparition really, a demanding one--who helps Rachel to an unwanted realization. Rachel is a keen observers of all this--her circumstances and her husband and, also, herself--not idealized but complex with strengths and confusions and prejudices of her own, growing over the years equal to her trials and coming ultimately to an astonishing decision--a modern, forward-looking one channeling now not characters of Austen but the great Russians, especially the recently deceased Solzhenitsyn--leaving this reader satiated yet hoping for a sequel.
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on 13 July 2010
I selected this book because I lived in South Dakota for a long time, and I still have family there, so I was very familiar with the setting. I was surprised that someone wrote a story involving the Badlands from the POV of an African-American woman named Rachel living on a struggling ranch.

When the story began with Rachel's daughter, Liz, being lowered into a dried up well, I knew then I wouldn't be happy unless I read the entire book right away. There was never a point where I felt I could put the book down. Each chapter introduced another level of Rachel, as well as her life with her husband, Isaac.

I was expecting her to have lost some children, just because of the time period, but the descriptions of the family's thirst and hunger was extremely upsetting. Even the farm animals suffering was described in detail...it made me feel like I was experiencing the drought myself. After reading about one hardship after another, I wondered why she would have stayed with Isaac for so long, when the original agreement was not a traditional marriage proposal.

I was suspicious of the pregnant Indian woman with the mixed-race little boy, but Rachel's reaction was unpredictable. She was a very complex character, and Isaac seemed more like a shadow of a person compared to Rachel. It was disappointing to see them being just as racist with the Native Americans, as the white people were to them.

I was very pleased with the way Rachel handled herself in the end, but I was disappointed that the story didn't continue onto the train.

This novel was written as if Rachel herself was writing it; I thought the flashbacks made the story stronger too.

Ironically, I wouldn't compare this story to The Color Purple, but maybe Their Eyes Were Watching God...the concept of a family struggling with a new environment reminded me of The Calligrapher's Daughter.

I think Ann Weisgarber did an excellent job of telling Rachel's story.
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on 24 September 2009
I felt alive to Rachel's every experience in this deceptively well written and brilliant debut novel. This a story of love, ambition and most of all, the struggle for survival. The lanscape of the South Dakota Badlands slips quietly into your consciousness. The ripple of Prairie grasses, the ceaseless wind catching at the door, lonesome never-ending horizons and Grindstone Butte: "..it shimmered like a story book castle of gold with handfuls of diamonds tossed here and there". What a courageous woman Rachel was; she loved the proud Isaac, from the moment their eyes met in the kitchen of his mother's Boarding House. But She was smart and calculating in her manner of winning him. She realised that despite his lack of love, he was at least honourable and fiercely ambitious. She was gambling that he would make a better life for them both, for their children. And he recogised in her, a clever, capable woman and helpmeet. But ambition can turn to cruelty, love can be eroded by poverty and hardship. Children pay a heavy price for a father's pride in the Badlands.

This moving story illustrates the layers of prejudice in early 20th Century America; rich versus poor, men versus women, white versus black, black versus less black, native american versus pretty much everyone. The crimes of white Americans against their black compatriots and the accumulation of small daily humiliations, inflicted on them by even the well meaning, all fuel Rachel and Isaac's pride. The author carefully draws each character and their motivations so sympathetically, you're unable to reach conclusions too soon and like all the best fiction, that sense of ambiguity and intrigue compels you to a satisfying ending.
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VINE VOICEon 31 July 2010
Gripping. The sense of place was amazing. The heat and dry winds of the summer and the harsh bitter cold of the winters, the vastness of this harsh and unremitting landscape perfectly captured. The struggle by Rachel to bring up her children in this wilderness was captivating. I couldn't put it down but didnt want it to end.. My only critisism is the rather abrupt ending of the book left me wanting to know what happened next. A sequel please!
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