Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above; The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 337pp.
Sarah Graves was only 21 years old when she married Jay Fosdick on April 2, 1846. Ten days later, on April 12, she left her home in Illinois with her husband and family of thirteen people and joined about two thousand other emigrants who traveled that spring and summer to California. Brown reconstructs this famous story primarily through the eyes of young Sarah Graves and her family. It would be almost exactly one year later when on April 17, 1847 the last of four "Relief Parties" reached a lone survivor.
The Graves party joined with George and Tamzene Donner, along with James and Margaret Reed, who left Independence, Missouri with a group of fifty wagons and 150 adults on May 12. Loaded with children, livestock and provisions, and lumbering along at two miles an hour, the two thousand mile trip took about six months. After they crossed the Continental Divide, and turned left to take the Hastings Cutoff ("an untried shortcut through unknown wilderness"), instead of the tried and true path to the right, the travelers became known as the Donner Party. This fatal mistake cost them an extra month of travel time and virtually assured that the Donner Party would meet disaster in the snowy Sierras.
There was nothing remarkable about the Donner Party's sojourn to California (which at the time still belonged to Mexico). The first wagon train west left in 1841; they were merely part of an massive migration over the next two decades that saw 250,000 people cross the continent. The outcome of their trip, though, and the sensationalist reporting about it, make them some of the most famous and carefully studied of the early pioneers. Only a mile or two from summitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range onto a downward slope just 100 miles from their destination, a ferocious November snow storm buried them in a frigid prison.
Thanks to the diaries, journals, letters, and (conflicting) memories of the survivors, and later work by historians and archaeologists, today we have a good idea of exactly what happened. Eighty-seven people were trapped for four months in snows up to twenty feet deep, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Forty-five people survived because of their decision to eat their dogs, boiled rawhide, and even their own dead, and thanks to the bravery of four separate rescue parties. Initial reports caricatured the Donner Party as ghouls because of their cannibalism, or dupes due to their poor choices and lack of experience. Brown rejects these interpretations; in his empathetic retelling, these were ordinary people who were heroic in the sense that they chose hope and the will to survive over "the indifferent stars above" (from a poem by Yeats). Today a national historical landmark, state park, memorials, towns, and a lake all commemorate this survival adventure with the Donner name. Interested readers will also enjoy the recently released Desperate Passage (2008) about the Donner tragedy.