As I wrote weeks ago, I’m an admitted devotee when it comes to reading about the Donner Party and their ill-fated sojourn across the west. I have found this topic strangely compelling since I first learned about it as a child and I am often attracted to books and media discussions about it. Such was the case with Brown’s book– as soon as I saw it was up for review I jumped at the chance to read it. The strange part was it took me quite a while to get to reading it. I knew it would take me places I was not yet ready to go and I wanted to make sure I was in a space that would allow for undisturbed reflection about the novel and Donners. Hard to do with young children home and running about. I finally carved out some time and dove in–I was not disappointed!
Brown tells the story of the Donner party through the eyes of Sarah Graves (Fosdick), a 21 year old newlywed who traveled from IL along with her husband and her own extended family to California. Brown does a fabulous job of recreating the circumstances surrounding their departure. We see the whys and hows of the trek planned out as well as the stunningly bad decision to depart too late in the season to prevent tragedy. We are with them as they meet up with the infamous Donners on their journey to California and as they find themselves trapped in the mountains for the winter with little hope of rescue. Readers feel the anxiety of these people as they anguish over the best course of action: stay and await the spring with ever decreasing food stores or make an attempt to seek help.
What separates this book from others I have read is that Brown does an excellent job of giving us more than just ‘the gory details’ of the Donner party’s descent into madness and cannibalism. We see Sarah before, during, and after Donner and there is as much of interest in the book ‘after’ her rescue as there was in the decision to hike out of camp.
Another excellent aspect of this book is Brown’s use of contemporary wilderness/survival stories within Sarah’s story. We not only see historical information from the period, but Brown uses 20th and 21st century stories of survival (or death) to parallel Sarah’s circumstances. The dramatic juxtaposition of these old/new stories heightens Sarah’s courage and extraordinary will to live instead of just re-rehearsing historical facts.
Brown invites readers to learn about Sarah Graves with him as he travels across the country recreating her journey. This is a personal quest for him as well. He wants to recapture what she might have felt leaving her home and setting out for a ‘better’ life in California. He seeks to know not only what happened to these ill-fated travelers, but how they survived and to what end. This is NOT a book that focuses on the cannibalistic aspect of the Donner saga– it’s much more. It’s about recapturing the humanity of the travelers and asking what propels us to move forward into the future when life seems indifferent to us. ( )