Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of the Personal History of Rachel Dupree

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a story best experienced firsthand with fingers pressed to the pages and an uninterrupted stretch of time. I found myself unwittingly drawn in by narrative that’s so direct and familiar in tone, it’s as if Rachel herself were speaking to me. Even the most subtle passages are deeply moving and the clarity of the simplest details brings Rachel’s world fully to life. But there’s far more to this book than time and setting. This is as much a story of race and the ambition to better one’s self, as it is about courage in the face of adversity.

Twenty-five year-old Rachel, a kitchen maid in a Chicago boarding house, agrees to marry Isaac DuPree, the son of a doctor’s widow. Although she barely knows Isaac, Rachel admires his ambition and believes that together they can build a better life. Newly wed, they leave to hew out a living on a ranch in the dusty wilderness that is the South Dakota Badlands. Negroes in the West are rare and Isaac is determined to build his wealth in land and earn the respect of others. Despite the toll inflicted on them by their harsh environment, Rachel bears a quiet fortitude as she tries to live up to Isaac’s expectations. But sometimes with sacrifice comes suffering and Rachel and her family are no exception. Hunger and thirst are all too familiar and death an often unwelcome guest. As their neighbors abandon their lands, Isaac clings ever more fiercely to his dream. Meanwhile, Rachel struggles to ensure her family’s survival, while alternately longing for the comforts of her old Chicago home. Without a doubt, Rachel DuPree will take her place among America’s literary heroines.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree enlightens us to the tenacity of the pioneer spirit, the stark realities of life in an unforgiving land and the sometimes cruel truth about how the West was really won. Ann Weisgarber captures the otherworldly landscape and harsh climate expertly – so much so that you can feel the grit under your fingernails and the dryness in your mouth long after you close the book. This is a poignant tale that will move you in unexpected ways, as it pits hope and pride against reality and resourcefulness.

Not only did this shoot to the top of my list of all-time favorites in historical fiction, but it easily takes a spot among my favorites of any genre. If I’m asked to recommend one must-read book for the year, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is definitely it.

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