As this novel begins it is the early 1900’s, and Rachel Reeves has been working as a cook for eight years at Mrs. DuPree’s boarding house for black men in Chicago. Now 25, she is still unmarried, but attracted to Mrs. DuPree’s son Isaac, 31, who has been in the army for 13 years. (Isaac served in the 9th Cavalry Regiment, historically one of the original six regiments of the regular U.S. Army set aside for black enlisted men by Congress in the act of July 28, 1866 reorganizing the army for post-Civil War service, mainly against native peoples in the West.) Isaac intends to get land pursuant to the 1862 Homestead Act, providing that any man or unmarried woman could claim a hundred and sixty ares of public land out west. Even blacks were eligible – as Isaac explained to a friend: “The Homestead Act doesn’t care about the color of a man’s skin. A man’s a man in the West.”
Mrs. DuPree looks down on Rachel – she is “too dark,” not well-educated (she had to quit school to support her family), and doesn’t come from an aristocratic family. Nevertheless, the ambitious Isaac figures that with Rachel, he could get 320 acres instead of 160, and agrees to marry her for one year in exchange. Rachel intended to prove to Isaac in that year that he wouldn’t be able to do without her. Mrs. DuPree disowns Isaac for marrying “low” and the couple sets out for the South Dakota Badlands.
The book, narrated by Rachel, goes back and forth in time beginning when Rachel worked at the boarding house, and alternating with a period fourteen years after the couple left for the west. They now have five children, with another two having died as infants. Life in the Badlands is extremely difficult, but whenever they get extra money, Isaac uses it to buy yet more land; as the story begins, they have 2500 acres, but hardly enough food and water to survive.
Rachel increasingly feels that Isaac cares more about accumulating land than the welfare of the rest of the family, especially the children. Brave, resourceful, and determined, she makes a hard decision for her future.
Discussion: There are a couple of subplots in the story worth mentioning. One is the social divide between Northern and Southern blacks. If you read World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe you will be reminded of the similar friction between German and Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, the former considering themselves a cut above the latter.
When Mrs. DuPree has Ida B. Wells come to speak to her ladies group, Rachel is delighted to discover that the famous and accomplished Mrs. Wells had been born a slave in Mississippi and related more to Rachel than the fancy women in the parlor. [Ida Bell Wells-Barnett born in 1862, was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.]
Another thread running through the story is Isaac’s curiously virulent hostility toward Native Americans. Rachel doesn’t find out the reason for it until almost the end of the story. But hints of what happened arise periodically, and affect the family’s relationship with others out west.
Evaluation: This gem of a book grabbed me from the start. It’s not long, but manages to pack a lot into it, from conditions for early settlers in the west, to race relations, social conventions, gender roles and expectations, and family love and loyalty. It would make an excellent book club selection.
Published by in the U.S. by Viking Penguin, 2010
Orange Prize Nominee for New Writers (2009)
David J. Langum Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction (2010)
Note: A movie with an all-star cast (with Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali, and Quvenzhané Wallis) is in the works.