The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

I lit a kerosene lamp and got the book of fairy tales from the parlor. I admired the feel of the book. The cover on this one was worn…I opened the book and held it to each girl’s nose. I always believed that smelling the pages of a book took a person into the story.

When we meet Rachel she is a mother, a wife, a pioneer. She recounts the events that have led her and her husband to the Badlands, an area in South Dakota where families are staking claim and farming the land. She has struck a deal with Isaac DuPree, a man who has returned from military service. She will marry him for one year in return for her claim of 160 acres of land (Homestead Act of 1862) as a way to double Issac’s claim. One year turns into 14 and 8 births.

The whole idea behind the story is of a black pioneering family trying to make their way in the early 1900s. They will have to fight the land, stand in the face of racism, and manage the turmoil of unsettled territory and the baggage of history past and historical events to come. The idea itself seemed great initially, but the idea never really played out as thoroughly as I’d hoped. There were struggles both with the land, between the couple, and within Rachel herself. There are times when thirst and the possibility of running out of food and hope nearly overwhelm Rachel. There are times when the Badlands are not what Rachel or Isaac bargained for. There are times when Rachel just wants a taste of sweetness for her children. But Rachel and Issac both just seemed too quiet. It was like they were both following scripts of what someone might have said they did and might have said they thought. I could never exactly feel what it meant to be planted in the middle of hundreds of acres of land, the nearest neighbor 90 miles away. Loneliness and isolation are major themes here. Rachel often wishes for another woman to talk with, to invite over for tea. She wishes for playmates for her young children.

I expected to book to show me what it would have been like for a black couple during this time as I haven’t read about black pioneers much less black pioneering women. This was a story about any woman. The racial tension was uneasy but not really tense. There were no major run-ins, the biggest confrontation is when a group of white men deliver a stove. They are surprised but generally pleasant. Rachel and Isaac sometimes mention being black in their narratives but it seemed thin. It was like they were just reminding you of their race.

There is a moment in Rachel’s recollection of her previous life as a cook in a boarding house in which Ida B. Wells-Barnett has been invited to speak to a black women’s reading group. The women are beyond excited in anticipation of this event but when Mrs. Wells-Barnett arrives in less than tea time finery and wants to talk only about lynchings and action for the future, the women are appaled. Rachel greatly admires Mrs. Wells-Barnett and often remembers to think of how she would advise her to go on, holding up her head, hopeful.

On the porch, I looked north once again where the White River still had a trickle of water. I scanned the sky. It felt like a storm-the air was thick as if it held rain. I lifted my arms a little, my sides sticky. It might have felt like a storm, but that didn’t mean anything. The weather liked to tease. I remembered times when big splinters of lightening split open the sky, making the ground shake and roll from the thunder, sending the children crying to me. Curtains of rain would surround the ranch, and yet not a drop would come our way. Other times it would rain for days on end, making me and Isaac fret about the crops and root rot. Then from out of nowhere, right in the middle of a downpour, the sun would show itself, lifting our spirits, making us think that the crops might just be all right after all. But it would keep on raining, us worrying about root rot, the sky bright with a rainbow. All the same, the orange-tinted clouds off to the west raised my hopes.

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