Bleak Vision Of Homesteading In 'Rachel DuPree'

Host Robert Smith talks with Ann Weisgarber about her debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. It's set in the Badlands of South Dakota in the early 20th century and follows the fortunes of Rachel DuPree — an African American homesteader — and her growing family.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

The story of Isaac and Rachel DuPree begins on the edge of the world. They're African-American homesteaders eking out an existence on the windblown badlands of South Dakota. It's 1917, the middle of a drought, and Rachel thinks that Isaac has pushed their daughter too far when he lowers her into a well to grub for water. That's how the novel starts, anyway.

Ann Weisgarber wrote "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree," and she joins us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas.

Welcome to the show.

Ms. ANN WEISGARBER (Author, "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree"): Thank you, Robert. Im happy to be here.

SMITH: You know, my daughters are just starting to read the "Little House on the Prairie" books. I read them when I was kid. And I thought the Ingalls family had it hard, but homesteading, after 1900, was even harder than they experienced in those set of books.

Ms. WEISGARBER: Well, you know, I did go back and read the "Little House on the Prairie" series and as an adult I saw them from a very different perspective and I pulled things from that and transferred it over to my story. But the whole idea of people having to stand on their two feet, no one else to back them up, that they had to pull themselves through, it was very much what I admired about the Western spirit. And so I wanted to move that into my novel as I wrote it.

SMITH: But after 1900, all of the good land was taken. And so your story takes place in probably some of the worst claims that anyone could possibly hope for in the badlands.

Ms. WEISGARBER: Exactly. So the pickings were slim at that time period. But for Isaac DuPree, the character in this book, it was still an opportunity for him to acquire land. And he was the kind of man who looked past the flaws and thought that he could conquer nature and not worry about those things.

SMITH: And was it fairly common for African-Americans to homestead during this time?

Ms. WEISGARBER: There were African-American homesteaders. I had done some research and I found quite a few nonfiction books, but I felt like it a story that had been overlooked. I had come across a photograph of a woman sitting in front of her saw dugout. And this is a black woman and I hadn't heard about families being in the West.

SMITH: You know, I have to say, I expected in the book that the main dramatic tension would be - I dont know - feeling racism out there in a land where there aren't very many African-Americans. But instead, the tension is more loneliness and alienation from all their neighbors, because there's nobody close. There's only these tensions with each other.

Ms. WEISGARBER: Thats right. And, you know, when you think that you're miles away from your nearest neighbors, the tension is going to be within your own home environment. But the other thing that I enjoyed bringing in was the tension with the Native Americans.

Isaac had been trained to be an Indian fighter, and so he has his ideas about Indians. And then the Indians saw the uniform and they did not care for the U.S. Army. So I knew that Rachel was surrounded by tension, not only within her own home but by her neighbors as well.

SMITH: It's interesting. As the DuPrees are out in the badlands, as they're facing these sort of elemental challenges of dealing with the drought and their land and each other, we sort of flash back to Chicago, where there's a whole different set of racial tensions going on. And in fact, the real life Ida B. Wells makes an appearance in the book.

Did you feel that was important, to contrast Chicago with what was happening out on the badlands?

Ms. WEISGARBER: I did, for several reasons. I wanted to make it very clear that returning back to Chicago would not be an easy choice for this family; that they would go back to dealing with racism and prejudice. And so I wanted to contrast that. But at the same time, I was so interested that part of America was advanced, very scientific, had electric lights. And then you could go a hundred miles a different direction and none of those things existed.

So for me that was fun, to show the difference between the rural and the city. But also just that attitude - to go back to the city, Isaac was going to struggle in the city. He couldnt go back.

SMITH: One of the interesting things about this book is that if there is a villain, I suppose it's the land itself, specifically the wind. All throughout the book the wind is just beating on this family - just beating down on them. And I'd like you to read a short excerpt about sort of what it's like to live out there.

Ms. WEISGARBER: The South Dakota badlands wore everything down, even children. But I had my wood house, just two years old and already it was scraped raw. Sprouts of prairie grass grew in on the roof where the tin plates shifted and dirt had blown in. Dust sifted through the edges of the glass windows and the door and no matter how many times in the day I swept, I couldnt keep the grit out. Now there was this tumbleweed mashed up against our house, making it look shabby like nobody lived there.

SMITH: Rachel and her husband Isaac are obviously these strong characters. They have reasons for being out there. They have something to prove, really, to be out on the badlands. But it's their children that ends up providing the real crisis in the relationship because Rachel has five children, one on the way at the beginning of the novel, and two of her kids have died when they were young out there on the badlands.

Ms. WEISGARBER: Right.

SMITH: And she starts to see that the decisions that theyve made are starting to impact their children and their children's future.

Ms. WEISGARBER: Right. She's worried about the fact that they're so isolated, that they really dont know anything but hard work. And she wants them to have, as she says in the book, a dab of sweetness. She wants them to be able to play with other children, to go to dances, and she realizes that is not going to happen for her children, and it's compounded by the fact that they are black and there's even fewer children then for them to go to dances with.

But at the same time, Isaac has a very different perspective on this. He's looking at the land as his legacy for his children and Rachel's viewpoint is much more narrow - she's worried about their happiness.

SMITH: You know, I was halfway through this book, I have to say, before I turned to the end and took a look at your picture. You're writing primarily about African-Americans. You yourself are white. Was that a difficult decision to make?

Ms. WEISGARBER: You know, Robert, when I started out writing this I was really just trying to give the woman in the photograph a story. And I truly did not think about this in terms of a book, and so I just kept going. I worked on it may be about four years. But I knew that if I wanted to tell this woman's story, I really had to sink into the time period. I had to see the world as she would have seen it.

But I didnt worry about if this was my story to tell, if somebody else should be doing it. I really just didnt think about it. And as the writing evolved and I got to know her so much better, it all came down to connecting with the human emotions; with loneliness, being homesick, trying to raise children in a very unforgiving environment. And thats what I think counted for me.

And in fact, I had shown this - about 20 pages of it - to another writer who's Irish. And he read it and he said this is Ireland. And so to me, it's many people's story.

SMITH: Ann Weisgarber, her new novel, her first novel, is "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree."

Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WEISGARBER: My pleasure, Robert. Thank you.

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