I don't usually do two book reviews in a row, but today is a definite exception to that way of thinking. I just read (devoured, is probably a better word) Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree and absolutely loved it! It seems I'm not the only one -- Weisgarber's book won the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction, not to mention being a finalist for the Orange Prize for New Writers.
Weisgarber's book tells a story you think you already know -- about the hard-scrabble life of Homesteaders in the early 1900s -- but includes information you didn't even know you didn't know -- about the experiences of black Homesteaders. Consider the narratives put forth by books like The Little House on the Prairie. Rich in detail, readers gobbled up those stories that rarely allowed people to fall too hard. Sure, crops failed and children got sick, weather raged and fancy dresses were rare, but neighbors helped each other through hard times and, in the end, everything worked out (and there was usually a barn dance). There's little prairie romance in Weisgarber's tale -- not only do crops fail, but people starve. Not only does weather rage, but people, white and black alike, die because of it . . . and, ultimately some of them give up on the land and go back to the cities where they could usually score basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter.
I won't spoil the story line of this amazing book, but will just suggest that the harsh realities of the early South Dakota Badlands were even harsher upon the few blacks who drew up their courage and tried to carve out their existences there. Loneliness and racism do much to make harsh conditions almost unbearable. This story, the story of Rachel DuPree, shows that world and illuminates a narrator and character of incredible strength.
Read this book -- soon! You will not be disappointed.