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.

Bleak Vision Of Homesteading In 'Rachel DuPree'

Bleak Vision Of Homesteading In 'Rachel DuPree'

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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.


Welcome to the show.

ANN WEISGARBER: Thank you, Robert. I'm 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.

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.

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?

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 don't 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.

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

WEISGARBER: 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 couldn't 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.

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 couldn't 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.


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

WEISGARBER: 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?

WEISGARBER: 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: Thank you so much for joining us.

WEISGARBER: My pleasure, Robert. Thank you.

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