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A Powerful New Book,
This review is from: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (Hardcover)
"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.