Recently, I was asked the question 'Why do you read historical fiction?' I think my answer was something along the lines of being able to eavesdrop on history. Really, the answer could have been to read books like this to find out about little known facts from history. My knowledge of homesteaders in America is very limited and I certainly hadn't given any thought to the fact that there were African-American homesteaders,or to the life that they and their families would have lived.
Rachel and Isaac DuPree are living in the Badlands of South Dakota, a land that is beautiful but also harsh at the best of times but is especially harsh during a long drought. The novel opens with a disturbing episode as one of the smaller children, Liz, is sent down the well to scoop out what little water remains at the bottom because the bucket can't be used in such a small amount of water as the well is practically dry.
Rachel tells us of her life in the Badlands but also flashes back to episodes from her past, especially back to when she was working in the Chicago boarding house owned by Mrs DuPree. When Mrs DuPree's son Isaac returns on leave from his duties as a buffalo soldier, she has grand ideas of marrying him off to a nice young lady from an acceptable section of society. She certainly doesn't want him marrying the help, but that is exactly what happens when Rachel agrees to join the parcel of land that she is entitled to under the Homestead Act to that which Isaac has already claimed, thus doubling his land size. They initially agreed to a limited time marriage, but they are still together, working hard to maintain their constantly expanding land holdings and their expanding family.
Rachel is in the latter stages of pregnancy when we meet her, and already has several young children, but this life that she has chosen with Isaac was not an easy one and she has also lost two children. She is however proud of the life that she has built with Isaac, having started with nothing, then living in a sod dugout until finally she is living in a wood house that they built themselves. That begins to change however when she begins to questions Isaac's priorities.
I loved reading about Rachel. She was strong enough to make the decisions that need to be made, both for herself and her children. It took her a while, but she got there in the end.
The character that has me thinking the most though is Isaac. I can't quite decide if he is such a driven man that he can think of nothing but acquiring and holding on to land, or if he is just a guy who doesn't easily show or communicate his emotions. He is hard on all of his family but I don't think he is blind to them and just making them do things that they won't like just for his own selfish ends. For example, with sending a terrified Liz down the well, the fact of the matter was that without doing this there would be absolutely no water for his family and they would all die of thirst.
In his mind, he thinks he is doing the right thing by contemplating going off to work in the mines to bring in a steady income and leaving Rachel to cope despite the fact she is telling him quite plainly that she won't be able too. It is obvious though that he is capable of physical affection with Rachel which he shows just by the touch of his hand on her back when she needs it. He does have feelings about his children, evidenced by the tears he sheds at one of the key moments in the book.
Isaac is particularly rigid when it comes to the rules in his own house. He seems to me to be very much of a generation where the father in the house must be obeyed by everyone, including his wife. Some of his rules make sense, but we did get to see more emphasis on the idea of persecution of a minority group with his own refusal to allow agency Indians into his home, or even to meet his own responsibilities in relation to certain Indians who make their way to him. He is discriminated against by certain towns people but he in turn is intolerant of others who he sees as beneath him for whatever reason.
I didn't actually realise for a few chapters that the characters in the book were African-American, and for me, that can be seen as quite a good thing. Whilst a big part of the subject matter of the book is both the isolation that Rachel felt not only living in the middle nowhere with few neighbours, but even more isolating is the fact that there are no other African-American people living anywhere near her. At it's heart though The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a human story - a woman who is struggling to get by in a difficult situation and making the difficult but necessary choices to get the best outcome for both herself and her children. A story of endurance, of courage and of knowing when it is time to make changes.
A couple of years ago I was visiting Perth and I spent some time listening to the stories that my grandfather told about some of the jobs he has done over the years. One of his earliest jobs was clearing areas of land in some of the hilly areas nearby. He had a horse and cart, and himself, and that was it. In another example is having to walk from one town to the next in the country areas of Western Australia in order to get to the next job, and these towns were not close together. All of his work as a farmer and a shearer was hard and it was physical, and is really pretty foreign to the kind of work that his grandchildren get to do. I found myself thinking of his stories as I read this book, mainly because of the sheer physicality of their day to day lives! I suspect that I would be a bit too soft from modern city living to live this kind of life.
When I think of pioneers and homesteaders in Australian terms I think that we are talking more than 150 years ago, and yet this book is very much talking about life in the wilderness, about making a life for yourself in the isolated rural region of the Badlands of South Dakota in America. 100 years ago was a long time ago, but by that time in the cities there was electricity, there was running water, there were cars on the street. It was therefore something of a shock to me to realise that timewise, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was in my grandfather's lifetime! In 1917, he would have been 8 or 9 years old. Giving it some kind of context makes it feel as though it happened very recently indeed.
This is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone who loves to read about times gone by. I am sure that you will cheer for Rachel, just as I did.