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A "brave, lovely novel"* about "a singular heroine"† whom "you will not soon forget"‡
*Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948
†Susan Straight, National Book Award finalist for Highwire Moon
‡Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek
In exchange for a wedding ring, Rachel, hired help in a Chicago boarding house, agrees to give Isaac, the boarding house owner's son, her share of 160 acres from the Homestead Act, and together they stake a claim in the South Dakota Badlands. But fourteen years later, during the summer of 1917, Rachel is pregnant again and struggling to feed her family, and it hasn't rained in months. Somehow she must find the strength to stake another, altogether different claim—for herself, and for her children.
Reminiscent of The Color Purple as well as the frontier novels of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree celebrates an extraordinary heroine who embodies the quiet determination and pioneering spirit that built America.
Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio. She was a social worker before earning a master's degree in sociology at the University of Houston and becoming a teacher. She divides her time between Sugar Land and Galveston, Texas. Visit her Web site: www.annweisgarber.com.
Isaac's mother, Mrs Elizabeth DuPree, owner of the DuPree Boarding House for Negro Men in Chicago, had standards. She took only the men what worked the day shift at the slaughterhouses. She said they were a better class than the ones what worked nights. No drinking, no swearing, no women visitors in the rooms—those were a few of Mrs DuPree's rules.
'My responsibility is to do my part in advancing the respectability of hard-working Negroes,' she told the men when she collected the rent every Saturday. 'We've got to be as good, even a little better, than white folks if we're ever going to get ahead.'
That was how Mrs DuPree talked.
The men listened to her, showing their respect by nodding when Mrs DuPree fixed them a sharp look. What they said, though, when she wasn't around, was that they stayed on, paid the extra dollar on the week and put up with her fancy standards all because of the fine meals I cooked. Not that Mrs DuPree would admit to that. She was forever pointing out that her boarding house was the cleanest in the city. Her house was quality; it was on the far edge of the stockyard district. Quality and cleanliness—that was why her rooms were full. No one said diff e rent. The bedclothes were changed every other Monday, and the outhouse shined like a new Indian-head penny. But it was the food the men admired out loud.
Six days a week for nearly eight years, I cooked at Mrs DuPree's. Every morning, long before dawn, I let myself in the back door, put on a fresh apron, and fired up the coal cookstove. I was at home in that kitchen with its canisters of flour and sugar on the shelf, the coffee grinder bolted to the edge of the wooden counter, and the icebox by the cellar door. In that kitchen that wasn't really mine at all, I baked rows and rows of buttery biscuits. My bacon was crisp, and I fried the eggs until the edges curled up and browned just a tad. That was how the men liked them. I perked the coffee deep and strong. After breakfast, I sent the men off to the slaughterhouses with ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. When the dishes were washed, I baked my pies, sometimes butterscotch cream, other times apple or cherry, depending on the season. On Saturdays the men counted on me to make a cake, maybe gingerbread or chocolate or sometimes a white cake.
'What's for dinner, Miss Reeves?' the men asked me most every morning. 'Fried chicken or maybe pork? Roast beef?'
'That sounds good,' I liked to say, teasing. I wasn't going to tell them, and they knew it. Those men hated their work at the slaughterhouses. They deserved one good surprise in a day's time.
One afternoon not long after, I was stoking up the cookstove fire, getting it hot enough to bake my bread, when Mrs DuPree swooped into the kitchen, her round body making the room feel too tight for the both of us. It wasn't like her to bother with me in the middle of the day. Afternoons were when Mrs DuPree liked to go over her accounts and order supplies for the house. Either that or call on friends, sit in their parlors, sip tea fro m fine bone china and exchange ideas about how best to advance the Negro race.
'Rachel,' Mrs DuPree said that day, 'I want you to help Trudy with the cleaning. You'll have to stay late a few evenings.'
'Oh,' I said, surprised. We'd just done spring cleaning last month.
'My son's coming home. He'll be on leave, expects to be here for several weeks.'
My heart fluttered.
Mrs DuPree waved an opened envelope. She put on her eyeglasses, pulled out the letter, and read it to herself, her lips putting shape to each word. 'He's to arrive next Wednesday. That's if the trains run on time.' She peered out the kitchen window. Elevated railroad tracks crisscrossed every which way two blocks over. 'Still surprises me to think they have trains out t here in Nebraska.'
'Nebraska,' I said, but I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking about Isaac DuPree. I had met him once before when Mrs DuPree took sick with pneumonia and the doctor declared her on death's doorstep. Isaac rushed home; he was just back from winning the war in Cuba. That had been five years ago. I had given up on ever seeing him again.
Mrs DuPree pushed her eyeglasses back up and studied the letter like the words might say something new. She was a hard one to know, I thought. Most widows would be smiling with joy to see their only child. But that wasn't Mrs DuPree's way, at least not in front of the help. But all the same, Mrs DuPree was excited. Her heartbeat showed in her neck. I hoped my own heartbeat wasn't so easy to read.
'I want this house shining,' Mrs DuPree said, 'every pot, every pan, every inch of it shining. Even behind the cookstove. He's been out in the wilderness so long I'm afraid he's forgotten how civilized people live.'
'Oh yes, ma'am.'
'And I want the food to be good. I'll make up a list of his favorites.'
I smiled. 'I'll do my best.'
'See that you do.' She eyed me. My smile was too big to suit her. I made it go away. She said, 'Start with the floors, get the marks up. And I want the silver polished and the sideboard waxed.' I nodded and she left.
I waited until I couldn't hear her footsteps. Then I drew up my skirt, held it above my ankles, and did a little waltz around the kitchen. Isaac DuPree, I sang to myself. Isaac DuPree was coming home. Coming home.
from The Personal History of Rachel Dupree