The Donner Party (Twofer Book Review)

Bookshelves: american-history, americana, mother-nature-will-kill-you, non-fiction, man-vs-nature, survival, wild-wild-west

Both of these books are about the doomed Donner-Reed Party of 1846-47, a wagon train of 87 emigrants to California who started through the Sierras too late in the year and with only a meager food supply, were trapped in the mountains by twenty feet of snow, and had to resort to cannibalizing those who had already died of starvation.

Takeaway from both books: Generally speaking, women have more gumption than men. Of those left in the camps at Truckee (now Donner) Lake, men turned their faces to the wall and were ready to die long before the women gave up. “I’m sick, my gravel hurts, I’ve got a bad foot.” Waaaah. And of those who snowshoed out, more women attempted AND made it.

I’m pretty sure calling someone a pussy should be considered a compliment.

The Mothers: A Documentary Novel of the Donner Party

The Mothers: A Documentary Novel of the Donner Party by Vardis Fisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was assigned reading back when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Clearly, it made an impression as I wanted to read it again, so I scrounged around online and found a used copy. This account of the Donner Party is touted as a “fictionalized biography” and a “novel,” although it sticks very close to the facts as I’ve learned them.

The story is well told as far as it goes, but the arrival of various rescue parties is–to me, anyway–only the beginning of the end. In this book, there’s no ending to the end. We are told of the Breen family (those who had not been taken out by the first relief party) refusing to budge during a snowstorm as they trekked toward Bear Valley with the second relief party, then being left behind and forced to cannibalism. That’s it. I’m left with the mental picture of a bunch of people sitting in the snow, gnawing on a human leg, fade to black. That’s not how it ended for the Breens. No spoilers.

No epilogue, no aftermath. I’m miffed that there is no source material listed. Yes, it was published as a “novel” in 1960, when all the source material may not have been available to the author, but the story was a well-known historical tale and there had to have been some archives he consulted. The writing itself is a bit stilted at times, and perhaps it’s just that the style is dated, but it’s still quite readable.

I do see why it moved me so much when I was a young teenager. It’s a decent read, if you like to immerse yourself in gory stuff like I do.

For a better read on the subject, in my opinion, check out:

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest DestinyThe Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is more like it. Great stuff. Not only is it a very personal story of members of the Donner-Reed Party, especially considering its academic approach, it is a close and often scathing look at the arrogance of white America and the principle of Manifest Destiny. It’s a recital of facts, to be sure, but it is a suck-you-in story, never dry, never boring. The heroism and the ignobility, the generosity and the greed, the courage and the cowardice, the strengths and weakness of those who found themselves in a horrific struggle for survival, are all here. One of the more fascinating tidbits, to me, was that banished-party-leader-turned-rescuer James Reed was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln, who might well have been a member of the party had he not been married to Mary Todd, who most emphatically did not want to go to California. On such chains of events our destinies sit.

I contacted my son, who is a co-host of the Lax Historical Context podcast, to suggest a villain for him: Lewis Keseberg, no doubt the most–perhaps fairly, perhaps not–vilified member of the Donner-Reed Party, who went on to found Sacramento’s Phoenix Brewery and introduce lager to California before eventually dying a penniless outcast. Nope, kid was five or six steps ahead of me; Donner Party episode already recorded a couple of months ago. He also knew all about the Donner Party Porter I’d happened across, naturally.

Not only is this review a plug for the book, it’s a shameless plug for the podcast. If you like history, you should check it out: Lax Historical Context, wherever you find your podcasts. If you’re interested in the most infamous emigrant story of pioneer America, read this book, wherever you find your books.

Now, in 75-degree weather and with nary a snowflake on the horizon, I’m in the mood for a beer and I’m going to see if I can’t acquire some of that Donner Party Porter.

Join me for a beer over at Goodreads


Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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