Posted by: Lizzie Ross | October 14, 2011

Badlands, 1917

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (2008), Ann Weisgarber, 321 pp.

I’ve been to the Badlands. I camped out there with my daughter in July 2002. Heat lightning flashed across the sky, so bright it glowed inside our tent. During the day, the heat was impossible, making me feel I was carrying an extra 50 pounds while trying to walk through forehead-deep water. Fissures in the land lay hidden, invisible until we were about to step into them. My daughter and I kept imagining the covered wagons trying to cross that land. We never considered that anyone would try to live there.

But that’s what Rachel DuPree and her husband Isaac do, in this novel set in the two decades before the US sent troops to Europe to fight in WWI. Over the course of the summer of 1917, Rachel recalls how she got to this wooden house on a 2500-acre cattle ranch in the middle of a drought. She’s pregnant, with five other children under the age of twelve, and frequently left on her own as her husband chases after wandering cattle or goes to town for water supplies. It’s a harsh life, devoid of ease and pleasure. Whenever Rachel has to leave the house to hunt a missing child or put the milk cow into the barn, she has to lock the youngest children in the bedroom, to keep them safe. Hard work is everyone’s duty, and a few minutes rocking on the front porch, awaiting a breeze, is the only reward.

But there’s one more thing: Rachel and Isaac are African Americans, descendants of enslaved Africans, forging a life free from the Jim Crow laws of Chicago. Isaac’s pride makes him refuse to ask for handouts, and they have all those acres only because he keeps buying land from others who pack up and head back east. The tension comes in what he demands from Rachel and her children — how much must they sacrifice, in order to keep the land at a time when others are leaving?

Weisgarber has written a powerful book, one that can be (and has been) compared to the work of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. With details that Cather and Wilder could (or would) never have included — outhouses, childbirth, racism — our understanding of what those pioneer women underwent grows. My two nights of camping, with a car to take us out at any time, really were a picnic compared to what Rachel experienced.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: