In this debut novel, long-listed for the Orange Prize, a black family struggles to hold itself together in the South Dakota Badlands of 1917, tested by drought, racism and suspicion.
The story opens with a striking scene that shows just how difficult the DuPrees have it: A two-month drought has forced Rachel, the family matriarch and novel’s narrator, to send her six-year-old daughter down a well to gather enough water for the family. Rachel has been living on this arid farm for the past 14 years, moving from Chicago to follow her husband, Isaac, an Army veteran who took advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire and expand their property. Together they had seven children, five of which have survived the tough landscape, and Rachel is close to delivering another as the story begins. That tension set, Weisgarber shuttles the narrative back and forth in time, capturing Rachel’s earlier life working in a boardinghouse for the black laborers at the Chicago stockyards. The owner of the boardinghouse, Rachel’s future mother-in-law, is a no-nonsense promoter of black uplift (Ida B. Wells makes a cameo appearance), and deep-seated racial prejudices are a consistent theme, from the brutal race riots Rachel reads about in letters from home to the contempt Isaac has for the Native Americans he fought while in the Army. Still, most of the difficulties Rachel faces are of the domestic variety, such as keeping her children fed and healing a sick milk cow. Weisgarber’s style is Alice Walker by way of Kent Haruf. She writes tenderly and with a tinge of spirituality when it comes to intimate family moments, and her spare descriptions evoke the simple territory in which the novel is set. That makes for clear storytelling, but overall the story feels curiously thin. The key plot complications—a threat to Rachel’s unborn child and a revelation about a past relationship of Isaac’s—arrive and fade with only modest drama. The muted tone is intended to be a testament to Rachel’s indomitability, but it makes her narrator as little different psychologically at story’s end as she was at the beginning.
Admirably crisp prose within a disappointingly slight study of race and family.