More Truth About The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
Rachel and Isaac DuPree, the main characters, came from my imagination. But much of the novel did not originate from my imagination but was inspired by chance conversations I had with strangers or by something — a diary passage or an essay — I’d read. Some of the novel, such as the following sentence that begins the story, was inspired by poetry.
I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well.
In my early drafts this sentence wasn’t anywhere in the novel. Instead, the book opened with Rachel in her garden, the plants wilting in the sun. Then I came across a short poem written by a woman who, when she was a child, had been lowered by her father into a well to scoop water. He did it even though she was terrified. He did because he had to. There was a drought, and the water level was too low to fill the bucket.
The discovery of this short but powerful poem fired my imagination. I rewrote the first chapter, tossing the original garden scene. I created a scared Liz, a determined Isaac, and an ambivalent Rachel. The scene set the tone for the entire novel.
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[Liz] better not be hiding in the outhouse thinking that’d be the last place I’d look. The little girls knew they weren’t allowed in there alone.
In 1917, indoor bathrooms with plumbing were common for many middle-class homes in large cities. In the Badlands, though, modern plumbing was rare and most families had outhouses. As I wrote Rachel DuPree, I didn’t think much about this; it was just a fact of life. That changed when I had a conversation with an older woman. She told me her mother used to worry herself sick about the outhouse and always accompanied her small children to the outhouse.
“Why,” I said.
“She was afraid we might fall in,” she said. She went on to explain that many outhouses had two openings, one for the children and one for adults. Her mother worried her children might accidentally slip and fall into the larger opening.
This was a gruesome thought, and although like most fears it might not be a hundred percent rational, it struck a chord. Even the commonplace could be dangerous. People had to always be on the alert. If one woman worried about the outhouse, so might Rachel DuPree, mother of five. I took a few chance remarks from a conversation and used them in Chapter Five to show the weight of Rachel’s responsibilities.
* * *
“Yeah,” John said. “And right before bedtime, there was a bunch of loud thunder, and we were all sitting at the kitchen table when this ball of fire came down the stovepipe.”
This scene in Chapter Eleven sprang from another chance conversation. I was in the Badlands loading my car with my luggage, ready to check out of a motel after having spent a few days doing research for the novel. Another couple was also loading up their car. We all said hello and before long the man said he’d been born and raised in western South Dakota. I mentioned I was writing a novel about the Badlands. He told me he had a story for me.
I got out my pencil and notepad.
He was a kid, he told me, when a good-sized storm passed through one evening. He and his family sat in the kitchen, candles burning. Thunder crashed, rain poured, and brilliant flashes of lightning lit up the kitchen. His little sister was crying, he said. All at once a ball of fire, sparks flying, came down the stovepipe. The ball circled around the stove, crackling and popping. Before anyone could move, the ball went back up the stovepipe and disappeared.
“Disappeared?” I said.
“A bolt of lightning,” he said. “Came and went, just like that.” He looked at my notepad. “Put that in your story.”
* * *
Then, too, it made me think about when I was a schoolgirl. I had recited the first part of ‘Hiawatha’ at my eighth-grade commencement.
And then Isaac quoted Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famous Negro poet that we thought so much of.
While I was writing Rachel DuPree, I read an article about the importance of poetry during the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. Schoolchildren memorized poetry and were made to stand before their classmates and recite passages. Adults memorized poetry, too. It was a common pastime even for people with little formal schooling. Dramatic recitation of poetry was often considered pleasant entertainment at social gatherings, and the ability to recite long passages from memory was much admired.
Rachel and Isaac DuPree were people of their time. If the memorization of poetry was popular during their lifetimes, I had to find a place for that in the novel. In Chapter Ten, Rachel reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” to soothe her nerves after the scare of losing Liz. In Chapter Seventeen, Rachel hears Isaac recite Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song,” while she suffers during a difficult labor.
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The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is fiction, but many of the events and experiences are true. A father really put his daughter into a well. A young boy did witness a ball of sparks circling around the cookstove. Longfellow’s and Dunbar’s poems were quoted by actual people. These touches of authenticity make the novel more than the story of just one woman. It is, I believe, an anthology of many people’s personal histories.