Ann Weisgarber

Book Talk

Why I Wrote The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

Years ago, I was on vacation at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Midway through the week, I took a break from hiking and visited a small museum in the area. I remember very little about the museum other than a wall of old photographs. In these pictures, homesteaders stood or sat in front of their sod dugouts or wood houses. Babies sat on women’s laps, and older children were arranged according to height. Men in suit jackets stared into the camera. Plows, horses hitched to wagons, and milk cows were often included in the photos. It was the homesteaders’ moment to document their presence in the West.

One picture, though, stopped me. It was of a woman sitting before her sod dugout. She was alone. Homesteading required settlers to plow three to five acres of land, build a house, and plant crops. Most had cattle, milk cows, horses, hogs, and chickens. Someone had to cook, mend clothes, and go into town and bring back supplies. This woman, though, homesteaded alone.

That was remarkable enough, but there was something else. She was an African American. I knew about black cowboys, and I had visited forts where Buffalo Soldiers had been posted. But I had not heard about African-American homesteaders.

I looked for a photograph label. There wasn’t one, and there was something painfully sharp about that. Her name had been lost. Yet, there she was, looking into the camera. “I’m here,” I imagined her saying. “I have a story. Listen.”

I pulled myself away, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. After the vacation ended, I researched black homesteaders. I found families throughout the West but these brief non-fiction accounts were dry and factual. The woman in the photograph was not just a series of facts. She knew joy and heartbreak. She had dreams, she had danced, and she had cried.

“I’m here,” I heard her say. “I matter.”

I paired her with a cookstove I had seen during the same Badlands vacation and began to write. It took seven years. During the first few years, I didn’t think about publication. I simply wanted to tell a story. Determined to do my best, I researched black culture, the Badlands, Dakota Sioux, Buffalo Soldiers, 1917 ranch practices, and Chicago. I took non-credit writing workshops from Houston’s Inprint and from San Antonio’s Gemini Ink. I made many mistakes along the way and lost track of the number of times I started over. The woman in the photograph, though, sat on my shoulder and would not allow me to give up.

During the fourth year an Inprint instructor told me I should think about publication. I decided to try; the woman in the photograph would expect that. The manuscript was rejected by agents and then by publishers. Every time that happened, the woman in the photograph told me the story wasn’t ready. “You can do better,” she said, and she was right. I’d go back to page one and start again.

She carried me through the rejections, and I felt her rejoice when the book was published. She never abandoned me, and I didn’t abandon her. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is not my book, but ours.

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