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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 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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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 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 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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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 7 July 2011
This is a book to savour from an outstanding new talent.
Between the pages of this novel many issues are raised, particularly concerning pride, ambition, prejudice, and of course, love. For me this is a story about a woman and her family, a woman and her feelings.
Rachel is a young negro woman who lives and works in Chicago. She falls in love with her boss's only son, Isaac, a hugely ambitious army man, and they marry under unusual conditions which involve buying land, and setting up home in the Badlands of South Dakota where the way of life involves extreme hardship. Despite that Rachel makes it her life's goal to please Isaac. She craves his attention, his admiration, his approval, and his love.
Isaac believes that owning land is the most important thing in life, but as the years pass and the children come along, Rachel begins to realise that putting the wellbeing of her children and herself to one side for the sake of her husband's pride and sometimes misguided ambitions is not something she can live with any longer. But what can she do about it? What is she willing to do, and does she have the courage?
Because of the beautiful way this author writes it is so easy to get into Rachel's mind and understand how she ticks. All the characters are well drawn and it is so easy to be there with them as they lead this punishing way of life which is so touchingly and sensitively described. The tale also has that essential balance of what the author describes as `a little sweetness' to make the reader smile.
Hopefully there will be more to come from the pen of this writer. In the meantime buy, read, and enjoy The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Its a gem.
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on 28 March 2013
With the main character having parents born into slavery and with the novel set at a time when aeroplanes flew in the skies this outstanding novel is very much that old cliché - "A page turner."

It is the story of a woman, a working class woman, born in the late nineteenth century who sees an opportunity for a better life.

But this particular better life takes her from a city with electricity and running water, to virgin ranch land in the Badlands of Dakota.

It is a story of hardship and struggle against nature's harshest elements and against love for family and stubborn pride.

The narrative is given by Rachel, the main character who's description of her life and that of her family is one that we will never have to experience in our relatively comfortable twenty-first century lives. Having said that there are themes within the novel that are as relevant today as they were in the period in which the novel is set, and will continue to be relevant in the future.

With some 304 pages and 19 chapters, this Personal History Of Rachel DuPree was for me a very enjoyable read.

The author's descriptive prose takes you to turn of the century modern booming city life and to the desolate Dakota Badlands in a very convincing way, but if you want to be helped further as to whether to read this novel Ann Weisgarber has a website that has some interesting historical photographs pertaining to the novel, as well as other information.
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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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