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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

  It all started with a sod dugout on the outskirts of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The dugout, called Prairie Homestead, was easy to overlook; from the two-lane road it didn't look like much. The sign, however, advertised that the 1909 sod dugout was listed with the National Register of Historic Places, and that was enough for me. I was on a camping vacation with plenty of time so I pulled into the empty parking lot and paid the admission fee. Since that day, nothing has been the same.
The Prairie Homestead consisted of a sod dugout, a root cellar, an outhouse, a barn, and antique farm equipment. My tour guide was owner Keith Crew whose grandparents had been Badlands homesteaders. The two of us walked up the slight rise to the sod dugout. There were prairie dog holes everywhere, and Mr. Crew warned me to stay on the dirt path. "Step in a hole", he said, "and you can snap an ankle." I stayed on the path.
Inside, the three-room dugout had a dank, musty smell. The dirt floor was so hard-packed that it felt like standing on cement. Sheets of yellowed newspapers were tacked on some of the interior walls to cover the rough-cut sod bricks. On the walls that were bare, shoots of grass grew between the sod bricks. To my surprise, Mr. Crew pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket, flicked it, and started burning the shoots. "Got to do it nearly everyday," he said. "If you don't, the prairie takes over."
The bedroom was just big enough for a low-slung bed that stood a few inches above the dirt floor. There was a potbelly stove in the parlor and because wood was scarce, rock-hard cow patties or cowchips, as ranchers called them, were stacked in a nearby bucket ready to be burned for fuel. I asked Mr. Crew if they smelled bad when they were burning. "Not much," he said.
It was the shiny black cookstove in the kitchen that stopped me cold.  The dirt around the cookstove was worn down much like a path. A woman, I realized, might have stood there for the better part of each day preparing food. I tried to imagine this. This woman had cooked three meals a day, day after day, year after year. There must have been times when she hated that cookstove, when she felt trapped by the constant demand to feed her family. Yet there, on the oven door, was an embossed ring of ivy making the cookstove an object of beauty. It might have been the woman's albatross, but the cookstove was hers and hers alone. It must have made her proud.
A few days later, I stopped in a roadside museum in South Dakota and saw a photo of an unnamed African-American woman sitting by herself in front of a dugout. This surprised me. I had never heard of black settlers in the West, but there she was in the photo, her mouth set and her eyes steady. Long after the vacation ended, I kept thinking about her, wondering who she was and why she was alone in the photo.   Her name had been lost to history, but she must have had a story and I wanted to hear it. I gave her a name, a dugout with a cookstove, and I began to write.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is the story of what might have happened.


Deborah Swift said...

When I read The Personal History of Rachel DuPree I had no idea of this story, and I'm glad. I came to the book cold, and it still had the power to move me and make me ask questions about the way we see history. For those that don't know, this book won the Langum Prize for historical fiction.Very highly recommended.

Eliza Graham said...

Yup--it's always worth making those detours off the road to go and look at small monuments, ancient houses, museums, whatever. You never, ever, know what they might switch on in your writer's imagination.

David Fuller said...

I love the image of Mr. Crews flicking his lighter and burning the shoots. Pulls everything together and makes it breathe. Nice piece, Ann.

Jessica McCann said...

Much the same way the dugout and photograph grabbed Ann Weisgarber, her book grabbed me and didn't let go. I rank her book among my all-time favorites. It's gripping and memorable. Highly recommended.