Writing What I Didn’t Know But Was Willing To Learn
A novel set in the South Dakota Badlands? About an African-American ranch family? In 1917?
“Why?” people ask me when they see the story line for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. The question doesn’t surprise me. I’m from Texas, not South Dakota. I’m white, not African American. I’ve lived only in cities, never on a ranch or a farm. I live in the 21st Century. On the surface, I have nothing in common with Rachel DuPree, the narrator of the novel. So why did I write this story?
I wrote it because I had seen a photograph of an unnamed woman. She had a story, I felt sure of it. Yet her name had been lost and that haunted me. At the same time, I recognized that assuming a voice different from my own was a challenge and that I had to get the details right. I had much to learn – this was my first novel – but instead of focusing on the enormity of the project and on all the reasons why I couldn’t do it or shouldn’t do it, I instead broke it down into small pieces and took the project one step at a time.
ACQUIRING A SENSE OF PLACE
The first step was to get a sense of the South Dakota Badlands. I couldn’t understand Rachel and Isaac, my two main characters, until I understood their home. I read everything I could find about the Badlands and gathered information about terrain, weather, and about the history of the Sioux, the region’s military conflicts, and the ranchers who homesteaded in the area.
I spent two vacations in the Badlands and had a four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park. These were opportunities to feel the wind that never stopped blowing and to experience thunderstorms that lit up the sky for hours. It was also a chance to meet people who lived there and to hear their stories. Some of their stories or fragments of them — the ball of fire that comes down the stovepipe in Chapter 11 comes to mind — worked their way into the novel.
Research and a handful of weeks in the Badlands, though, did not make me a South Dakota rancher. Rather than letting that be an obstacle, I tried to use it to my advantage. It let me see the Badlands as Rachel saw it when she first arrived there with Isaac. Its vastness and isolation overwhelmed her just as it overwhelmed me. Like me, Rachel came from a city and so I knew that she had to miss certain aspects of city life. My outsider’s perspective also helped me with Mrs. Fills the Pipe, a minor but important character. Like Rachel, Mrs. Fills the Pipe was an adult when she came to the Badlands. Her perception, though, was very different than Rachel. Mrs. Fills the Pipe called it a harsh land that nobody wanted while Rachel believed it was the land of opportunity.
UNDERSTANDING RACHEL, ISAAC, AND MRS. FILLS THE PIPE
Once I had a feel for the Badlands, I next had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel and Isaac when they were children and adults. This called for history lessons about Ida B. Wells Barnett and Booker T. Washington. I learned about the African-American professional class in Chicago, the Chicago slaughterhouses, and buffalo soldiers who served in the West. I gathered information about the inventions of the day as well as popular novels, music, and dance.
I did the same for Mrs. Fills the Pipe. I read about and visited Pine Ridge. I researched boarding schools for Indian children and found pictures of young Indian men and women dressed in the latest fashions of the day. I learned about funeral customs and Sioux beliefs about the afterlife. With this wide mix of information surrounding my characters, Rachel, Isaac, Mrs. Fills the Pipe began to come alive. I understood what shaped them as people. I understood what motivated them to think and behave the way they did.
Regardless of all the research, I could not completely understand the African-American and Indian experiences but again, I tried to turn that to my advantage. Rachel could not see the world exactly as Mrs. Fills the Pipe saw it. Nor could Mrs. Fills the Pipe fully understand Rachel. And yet, at the end, the two women came together, and although it was for a brief period of time, it was long enough to crack the barrier that separated them.
THE 1917 MINDSET
Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. To tackle this, I read novels and diaries written before and during the turn of the last century. I discovered that in 1917, in general, women were not liberated, children were not coddled, and men did not feel obligated to consult their wives when making decisions. Many people openly expressed their prejudices but did not discuss personal matters with others. Nor did they verbally express feelings. The idea of marriage based on romantic love was not universally expected, but many people did expect to sacrifice if they wanted a better future for their children.
Rachel and Isaac were people who thought and behaved like many others of their generation. They were ordinary people who did one extraordinary thing. They left the security of their known worlds and courageously staked a claim in the Badlands. From that moment on, their perception of the world changed.
So why did I write this story about a woman who seemed so different from me? I did it because it was a challenge. I did it because it was an opportunity to leave the security of my known world. I did it because I wanted see the world from a new point of view.
Perhaps Rachel and I aren’t so different, after all.