Rachel has married up. She used to be a hired girl working in the kitchen at Mrs. Dupree’s boarding house. Mrs. Dupree was forced into taking in boarders when she was widowed, but she has done quite nicely for herself. She is among the cream of Chicago’s Negro community, and the women she entertains are light-skinned and at least four generations removed from slavery. Imagine her tremendous dismay when her only son, Isaac, comes home from fighting the Indian wars and announces that he is moving out to the Western territories to stake a claim and become a common farmer. “Rancher,” he reminds her. And if he marries a single woman who has also staked a claim, he will have twice as much land once they marry.
And so he stakes a claim on Rachel’s behalf, and she gets her heart’s desire: she gets to marry that handsome young officer. She becomes Rachel Dupree.
Roll the film forward about 14 years. Rachel is pregnant with her eighth child. The Badlands, “a country so backward and harsh that even Indians didn’t want it”, has had no rain for a long, long time. To get a little water, they have to tie one of their children to a plank and lower her on a rope to the bottom of the well. Liz doesn’t want to do it anymore. She has nightmares. There’s a snake down there, she says.
But their tongues are thick from lack of water. There is grit between their teeth. And they will lose the horses and their only milk cow if they don’t water them.
So at bedtime, Rachel tells her five surviving children to take just one sip of the water Liz brings up.
Are you spellbound, or are you horrified? I confess I was both. I live in the land of water. In Seattle there is moss growing on everyone’s front steps or porch, and if we aren’t careful, it will grow on our fences and our homes! Most of us don’t bother with umbrellas. We’re used to the fine mist that generally falls during the day. Most of the good hard rain falls at night, and it lulls us to sleep better than a lullaby. And yet, we send the kids to school carrying a water bottle anyway, because hydration is so important.
“Only a sip.”
I’m not the only one that doesn’t care for that. Rachel has about had enough of it, too. For one thing, there are no Negro families anywhere nearby. Isaac had told her that plenty of the men with whom he’d been enlisted had filed for homestead claims, but any that may have been nearby have gone on home. They can’t take it here. And actually? The white folk can’t stand it either. Every time someone goes home, Isaac buys their land. Every time there is a spare dollar, it does not go for a coat for the child who’s outgrowing hers; not even for fabric for Rachel to sew some new clothes. Rachel herself has a patched dress and a pair of work boots. What a contrast she makes from the finery she wore on her wedding day! And she is worried about their eldest daughter, Mary, who will be the right age to start dating soon.
The final straw is broken when Isaac buys out yet another departing neighbor–Rachel’s closest friend, too, as luck would have it–and there is no money at all. There is no money for winter provisions, even, and the kitchen garden died when the rain didn’t come. There is nothing, nothing, nothing. And his game plan is to work the gold mine in Lead, South Dakota, which is far enough away that he will be gone all winter, and she and the children will be left with a brand new baby and thousands of miles to ranch unassisted. And no food.
But hey, he believes in her. He’ll go hunting, maybe bag a bear together with his son, and between that and Rachel’s amazing know-how and steely determination, everything will turn out fine!
Not so much.
A strong subplot involves the local American Indian population. Homesteaders who are hungry, thirsty, and have almost nothing but the land on which they live and try to ranch are sometimes resentful of the “reservation Indians”, who have been stripped of their dignity and culture in exchange for free food, rent, and clothing (“free” being a relative term, of course). Isaac was one of the soldiers that subjugated those same Indians; when Rachel is alone on the ranch for days on end and Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her children pass by, Rachel craves company so desperately that she invites them to rest on her porch. She makes the very dead last of her chokeberry tea and serves it to Mrs. Fills the Pipe and her daughter.
“Our water?” said Liz. “You’re giving them our water?”
Liz had a point there; she was the one went down the well to get it. And yet, the good turn, though it upsets Isaac when he hears of it later, is not misplaced, and does not go unrewarded. And eventually Rachel thinks back to the things her hero, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, said in the Negro press (I use the term as the writer does, for historical purposes), she does not regret the gesture, except for the fact that she served them on the front porch when she should have invited them into her precious parlor.
I didn’t read this book as a galley, I got it at the local library. A galley led me to Weisberger, though. I read The Promise a year or two ago and decided that this writer was going on my to-read list. This makes two winners out of the two I have read. And on top of it all, Weisberger is a Caucasian writer (or appears to be; at any rate, she isn’t Black.) This is only the second writer I have encountered that could write a first-person fictional narrative in which she provides the voice of a Black woman, and does it creditably and with great dignity. I bow in awe.
And although I was already sold on the book and its author, the mention of Lead, South Dakota, nearly made me jump out of my skin. That is the tiny town where my late father was born, and its mine (gold but also iron ore) is where my late grandfather contracted the black lung disease that would eventually kill him. For those interested, it is pronounced “leed”. Maybe it’s too embarrassing to admit your home town is named after the mineral it produces, or maybe it’s a positive connotation, like leadership. My only visit there took place when I was a pre-schooler, and I have very few memories of it, all of them related to family rather than place.
Forgive the digression. All told, this is really strong historical fiction. If you want to read something a little different from most of the stuff that’s for sale; if you like stories of the homesteading movement; or if you want a story that features African-Americans in a positive light, this is your book. If you just want a great book to curl up with at night while the spring rains pass, this is your book too.
In short, highly recommended.