Ann Weisgarber spent seven years on the research and writing of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, her first novel, and has been rewarded for her efforts with several literary honors, including an Orange Prize nomination (the book was first published in England). The research enables Weisgarber to bring her story to life with careful details, but the most effective detail she uses is her title character's narrative voice.
The fact that some of the homesteading pioneers of the Great Plains were African-Americans seems to be a bit of an historical footnote, but in some ways it makes sense that they'd seek opportunity in a place where they wouldn't be held back by entrenched traditions and prejudices. Isaac DuPree saw that opportunity in the landowning promise of the Homestead Act; and in Isaac, Rachel Reeves saw her own opportunity to escape potential marriage to a slaughterhouse worker and a life of domestic labor. They made a deal: Isaac could claim Rachel's 160 Homestead-Act acres as well as his own if they got married and remained husband and wife for a year. Twelve years later, they live with their five children on the 2500 acres they now own, seizing more opportunities as neighboring ranchers give up on the tough, unwelcoming Dakota Badlands, sell out, and move back east. And now, a summer of terrible drought and another baby on the way have caused Rachel to wonder whether those neighbors might have had the right idea, and she begins to question what opportunities her children will find in this isolated, difficult place.
It's hard not to be impressed by how effectively Ann Weisgarber gives voice to an African-American pioneer woman of nearly a century ago. I was immediately and deeply drawn into Rachel's story and the challenges of her life--not just the hard labor of it, but the deep insecurity of it. Making a living off the land is inherently insecure and easily destabilized by the whims of nature, and for the DuPrees, it's compounded by the harshness of the place where they're trying to make that living. Rachel's increasing sense of loneliness is clear, and I responded strongly to both her strength and the tangled emotions that cause her to doubt it.
I wouldn't have minded if The Personal History of Rachel DuPree had been a longer novel; there were some plot threads that didn't seem to be fully explored. At the same time, I'm not sure a longer novel would have had the same intensity or, in the end, have been as satisfying.