Sunday, October 18, 2015
The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown
Mention the Donner Party and most people know the name. They immediately think of the cannibalism that the name has come to represent. But Daniel James Brown thought there was more to the story and set out to give a full account of what happened and how this tragedy occurred.
It was 1846 and promises of land and a wonderful life were being publicized to the American populace. Settlers in many states loaded up wagons and set off in groups to make the long trek to California, usually thousands of miles. Travel was much different than today. There were no accurate maps, no laid out roads, no grocery stores and hotels along the way. Travelers had to carry everything they would need for a months-long trip with them. They had to trust to sketchy maps and guidebooks that were often written by individuals who had never even made the journey. The travelers expected that they would run into problems. They expected hostile Indian attacks, predator animals, horrific weather and sickness and possible injury.
In that environment, days could make a trip a life or death affair. Such was the fate of the group that became known as the Donner Party. They left the jumping off point three weeks later than recommended and those twenty-one days doomed their expedition. Most people have heard of the Donners, but they were just one family that were in the group that made up the party. Another major family were the Graves, with their nine children, including Sarah, a twenty-year old woman who had married her sweetheart right before the trip.
Most people don't know any of the particulars. They don't know that there were several camps in the party who were snowed in. They don't know that a group left the camp and walked for weeks in the midst of winter to find help. These men and women walked over mountains, almost barefoot and naked, lying out in the snow and icy temperatures for nights on end. Those behind in the cabins were no better off. They were the weaker individuals and were slowly starving. Each group separately made the decision that most people believe they would never make. They decided to eat human flesh in order to survive.
Daniel James Brown has written a marvelous history of this event. He made the trip himself and can write about the sights and sounds and difficulties the travelers experienced so that the reader feels that they are actually there. He has researched the events around the tragedy and also tells the reader what happened after the events that these individuals will forever be known for. Most of us have no way to visualize how difficult travel was in this age, and how a moment's decision could be the difference between life and death for entire families. The reader will finish the book with much more empathy for how the West was populated and what early settlers endured to gain a better life for their families. This book is recommended for nonfiction readers.