The indifferent stars above : the harrowing saga of a Donner Party bride

by Daniel Brown

Hardcover, 2009





New York : William Morrow, 2009.


In April 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and fourteen others set out for California on snowshoes and, over the next thirty-two days, endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors. In this gripping narrative, New York Times bestselling author Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most infamous events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah's journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative.… (more)

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“The Indifferent Stars Above” is an ­ideal pairing of talent and material.

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LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
I have long been fascinated by the Donner tragedy which played out in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1846 and I was eager to read Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above. This book lived up to my hopes for it and then some. I read Ordeal By Hunger a few years ago and I consider it a good and full account of what happened there at Truckee Lake, but The Indifferent Stars Above brought so much more to the table.

The author writes in particular about the story of Sarah Graves Fosdick, a 21 year old bride at the time she left Illinois with her new husband, her parents, brothers and sisters. However he does not limit himself to Sarah’s tale and fully relates the stories of the other unfortunates who became stranded in the mountains with her.

Beyond the stories of bad choices, horrendous weather, starvation, death, disease, cannibalism and heroic rescue, Brown’s decision to travel the entire route – from Illinois to California – in order to more fully experience the land that Sarah traveled across, was a good one. I could really see the country he wrote about – the birds and animals, wildflowers, salt flats, steep mountains, boulders and rivers. And the snow and the cold. How any of these people could survive such conditions is amazing to me. For me, Brown brought the people, the places and the time to life. He also discusses the effect upon the mind and the body of a variety of things such as, hypothermia, hyperthermia, starvation and the shock of the horrendous things suffered by the company to good effect.

And once more I realize how very different we modern-day folks are from these people. How whiney and weak we seem by comparison. I do not know anyone who would consider, for one moment, doing what these people did – giving up their homes, marching off into the wilderness with everything they owned in a wagon, risking everything, including their lives and the lives of their families, for a new life in a place about which they knew virtually nothing. It’s crazy. And it’s amazing.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member SpongeBobFishpants
Well, I could not possibly have been more excited to receive this book! Having lived within just a few miles of the cabins I developed an intense interest in the history of the Donner-Reed Party when I was younger. I drove past it every day but never really thought about it until one day, out of desperation for something to read while waiting for my laundry to finish, I picked up a copy of [Ordeal By Hunger] at the local grocery store. That was 20 years ago now and I am still just as fascinated.

Over the years there has been a variety of myths and legends surrounding what happened, some started by the survivors themselves and some originated or perpetuated by writers like Stewart and McGlashan, I hoped that Brown would take a more modern approach to his research and make an attempt to weed some of those inconsistencies and more dramatic add-ons from the story and he did so in fine style. Because the truth is, inevitably, so much more interesting. While this doesn't go into research in the depth that I would have liked, being a fan of those dry scientific papers that others seem so loathe to read, it is still far more informative than I expected and full of additional information culled from various perspectives such as PTSD, the effects of starvation, grief, poor diet, interpersonal conflict and hygiene. In addition the author addresses how, by necessity, many of the decisions of emigrants of that time period were based on nothing more than educated guesses. Forced to make decisions without any kind of true cartography, confronted with conflicting opinions, information presented as truth when in reality it was often nothing more than speculation and overly optimistic descriptions, it is amazing that many more emigrants didn't suffer similar fates. Having made the drive myself many, many times from Reno to Truckee up the same canyon that the Donners were forced to travel by wagon with no roads, it is simply a mystery to me how they did it.

This is without question one of the better books written on this story. That the author accomplished this with such compassion and attention to detail makes this book a welcome addition to my Donner library.
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LibraryThing member debherter
I had hoped this book would have a more driving narrative to it. Unfortunately, it moves so slowly that I felt like I was walking beside a covered wagon for miles while reading it. The author attempts to bring a different point of view to the story by focusing on two women (girls) who were a part of the group, but he fails at this, sometimes making the book seem too much like some warped version of his own autobiography, and at other times losing the main characters for large portions of the narrative. To be fair, I will confess that after several tries I was not able to finish the book, so it may have a redeeming ending, but I couldn't slog through the muddy story-telling to get there.… (more)
LibraryThing member karenthecroccy
Of course the subject matter was compelling -- who wouldn't want to read about a disastrous tale of settlers losing their way over the Sierra Nevada? I had learned a bit about the Donner-Reed party over the years, but had never read a historical account of the people who attempted the trip to California. I was obviously excited to receive this book as an early reviewer.

Daniel James Brown certainly did his homework; his research was thorough. However, I had to resist the urge to get out the red pen and knock off paragraph after paragraph of details that weren't plot moving devices. The intricate details in places contrasted hugely with areas where it seemed Brown didn't have as much information: namely, his main character, Sarah Graves. What made him choose this person to drive the story? I understand that she was a distant relative, but the fact didn't make the narration any different, in my opinion. Perhaps the fact that she was a new bride allowed him to bring up more of the "trivia" (or so it seemed) about birth control and whatnot.

On the other hand, I could appreciate the finer details of the story if presented in a manner that blends well with the story. I like to know the hows and whys of history. There were times where I felt as though the author's opinion interrupted the flow of the storyline. While I appreciated his dedication to the story, I didn't really need to know about his trek across the salt flats. The denouement left me wanting the same amount of details that were given throughout the rest of the historical account. The book fell flat and didn't feel complete. If Brown was going to show us all the reasons, I wanted to know more about the long lasting effects of their trials over the mountains.

Kudos to Brown for a well researched history!

I was disappointed that the ARC of this book did not include the photograph inserts that the hardcover edition had. I did seek them out when I was recently in a bookstore.
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LibraryThing member ThoughtsofJoyLibrary
I was only peripherally aware of the Donner party saga, and this book gave me a detailed, step-by-step account. I feel well-versed now. However, that being said, I didn't expect that type of experience. I thought it would be more story-like; this leaned more towards text book writing. (No major complaints about that, though.) For the most part, I thought it was very good, and I learned a great deal - it just felt a little distant, probably because Brown didn't just focus on a few characters. There were numerous groups. However, it was by no means emotion-free; it's a devastating story.

It was very obvious that Brown's research was extensive, and the added side notes of information were of great interest to me. In the finished copy, I believe there are photos, which I'm eager to seek out. However, it's my understanding that there is not a map, and I feel like that is an important, missed feature. I would have loved to have seen the trail they were supposed to have taken and the one that lead to the demise of many.

In the end, The Indifferent Stars Above, is a fine piece of work. It's informative and sincere. I'm glad I read it and recommend it to those interested in the Donner saga.

Originally posted on: Thoughts of Joy
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LibraryThing member khuggard
Often times I read history books and wonder how an author can make such an interesting subject sound so boring. That was not the case with this book. Brown wrote an engaging and interesting history about an oft-mentioned but largely misunderstood event. When he here about the Donner Party one of the first things we think of is cannibalism. It is of course unavoidable that the author address that part of the story, but he doesn’t do so in a voyeuristic sort of way. Rather he explores the psychology of the issue and the context in which those events occured.

But this book isn’t about one tragic climax on a months long trek. Brown starts the book at the beginning of the journey and follows the pioneers as they cross the plains and make the fatal choices that will lead to the ultimate tragedy. In the meantime he paints a picture of fortitude, endurance, and determination in the face of the most dire circumstances. I especially liked how the author places the saga of the Donner party in the context of the political and cultural environment of the 1840s. His explanations of the world the pioneers lived in, gave me a better understanding of their story.

As much as I liked the book, I do have two major complaints. First, the subtitle is inaccurate and the premise is weak. I’m certain that the author wanted to make his book stand out from all of the others about the Donner Party by focusing on just one member of that party. The problem is that he doesn’t know enough about Sarah Graves to pull it off. Sometimes he covers his tracks by saying what Sarah “must have done” or how she “must have felt”. Most of the book he just ignores her and focuses on the party as a whole, which is what he should have done in the first place. The subject is engaging enough and his writing is strong enough that this book does not need a gimmick to make it interesting.

My second complaint is about the completely unnecessary epilogue where the author describes his experiences visiting some of the places the Donner Party passed on their trek. Perhaps he was trying to lend deeper understanding to historic events, but it just felt like the author was self-indulgently inserting himself into a story where he doesn’t belong.

Quibbles aside, I highly recommend this intriguing book. Just don’t expect it to be about Sarah Graves and skip the epilogue.
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LibraryThing member hippypaul
I have read several accounts of the trials of the Donner Party. I did not fully understand the event, however, until I finished this work. Mr. Brown gives a detailed account of the events of the journey without dwelling on the horror in which most works find their focus. Instead he provides an understanding of what it was like to be a person alive in that time at that place.

Starting by outlining the cycles of malaria that lashed Illinois and the great depression of 1837 when 343 of the nation’s 850 banks went under. He shows the pressures that drove people to decide to leave for Oregon and California. It was ironic to learn that these early pioneers of our history were sneaking across an international border and “thus became California’s original illegal immigrants.”

While not dwelling on the central event of the tragedy he clearly outlines the effects that hunger will have on the human body and draws on the latest information on PTSD to explain the aftereffects and outcomes of many of the survivors. He dips into meteorological history and science to examine the question had the party had been foolish or the victims of a very harsh winter.

Throughout the book, even while he brings in data from the full spread of science he never loses track of the people involved and especially of Sarah Graves who had made that decision to travel west to find a better life. This is an excellent book that will take you ever step of the way with the young lady.

A copy of this book was provided free by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
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LibraryThing member tintinintibet
Now I know why I didn't read much of the donner party. Ugh. Not sure there's a pleasant part of that story. I'm more interested in the history of the frontier, not specifically the order in which people met their grisly ends.This book purports to focus on a single character to trace through history -- which is a tenuous theme at best. The first 75% discuss over 50 characters, so it is hard to keep them straight, and only at the close of the story does the author wax philosophical (and a bit indulgent) in first-person stories of how he relates to the "central" protagonist both as he tries to put himself in her shoes, and as he imagines himself to be her father, since he has a daughter in real life who is the same age as this protagonist (at least, at some point they are the same age, which is rather silly since the story is about her life over a period of decades).Anyways. I'm not sure there is a better Donner Party narrative out there. The ones in the library seemed to be written in that late 19th century style, which is uncomfortable for an armchair historian like me. I found myself wishing that I was re-reading Undaunted Courage or similar, rather than this harrowing tale of misery and catastrophe.… (more)
LibraryThing member MissMermaid118
History that reads like a novel. The story of the Donner Party is one that everyone seems to have heard but that few really know anything about. Today the only thing anyone really is aware of is the horrifying lengths members of the group went to in order to survive. What people don't realize is that the majority of the Donner Party were women and children; that they were completely exhausted and without provisions well before they became snowbound; and that there were numerous attempts to escape the snowbound mountains as well as rescue parties sent from California. I found this book to be absolutely riviting. Yes, it was sometimes difficult to read about this ordeal. On the other hand, it was inspiring to know read about their determination to live and to know that many did survive. Absolutely one of the best books I've read and very highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member lpmejia
The Donner Party incident has, over the century and a half since it was first publicized, become a part of the shared American history mythos. Unfortunately, it has also suffered from its notoriety – reduced to a sad tale at best and a punch line at worst. Like most people, I knew almost nothing of the tragedy itself when I picked up this book. I only knew the barest of facts – a group of wagon trainers caught in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains during brutal winter conditions who resorted to cannibalism to survive. As with all well-known historical episodes, however, there was, and is, much more to the story.

Instead of trying to focus on as many party members as possible, Daniel James Brown instead centers his narrative of the tragedy around one survivor, newlywed Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was only 21 when she set out with her husband and family on the journey. Through Sarah’s eyes, Brown is able to then illuminate the other victims much as another human being would, instead of relegating them to a catalogue of facts.

The best history books transform their subjects from unknowable objects into what history truly is about – real people who dealt with monumental circumstances. Brown’s writing is superb, not only for having achieved this goal but for the way he brings us into what it meant to be alive in 1846. His research encompasses not only the Donner Party itself, but the social and economic forces which spurred the great American migration westward, along with practical and relevant knowledge about everyday life in the middle of the nineteenth century. All of these factors played a part in the choices these people made, and how those choices ultimately spelled their doom.

Daniel James Brown has written a seminal work on the history of the Donner Party incident. Anyone interested in this tragic, wholly American story would do well to read it.
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LibraryThing member Ann_Louise
It's a bit strange to say you "enjoyed" a book that so vividly describes the plight of the Donner Party, but it's true in this case. TISA gives the reader a "you are there" feel in describing what the trek West was like, and the physical hardships the travellers endured. It's very much like "The Children's Blizzard" in describing the conditions and also resembles "A Night to Remember" in keeping me reading to find out what happens to the various "characters" - plus a bit of "Alive" for some of the nitty-gritty on cannibalism.… (more)
LibraryThing member suballa
This was a such a great story about the Donner tragedy. There have always been questions surrounding the events that happened during that journey and many are answered here with the help of our new understanding of the physical and psychological effects of trauma. One question that I often wondered was why the members of the Donner party suffered from starvation so quickly when in our recent past there have been protesters on hunger strikes that lasted weeks longer than the Donner party members' deprivation of food. What effect did being on the brink of death for so long have on the survivors? Why did the single men in the party fare so much worse than the families, even the young children? We know so much more than we did then, and the author has done extensive research to find the answers to these and many more questions. This is by no means a dry history of the events, but an engaging and fast paced story of these innocent people looking for a better life who became the victims of a few selfish and greedy men.… (more)
LibraryThing member tjward
"The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride" is, of course, about the terrible fate that befell some members of the Donner Party - half of them died before they got to California and some of them were indeed eaten by other members of their wagon train. However, the book is an excellent reflection on man's arrogance in the face of nature. The leaders of the Donner Party were sure they could push on to California even though it was late in the year, they had very little food left and they didn't really know how to get where they were going. The hardships were just unbelievable and the folks who did make it, in several cases, died before their time from the extreme deprivations they suffered. "The Indifference Stars Above..." is very good reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member parelle
I have a distinct soft spot for "popular" histories, ones intended for a general rather than a popular audience. But when a book tiptoes the line between history and biography, I do like to know more about the person who's supposedly at the center of the book than the general historical setting around it. Frankly, reading this, I found that I'd much rather read about Sarah's sister Mary than Sarah herself - she left very little written information behind her, clearly, and her sister seemed more engaging. Choosing Sarah seemed to be as an excuse to talk about the 1840's attitudes towards 'X', whatever that happened to be (particularly marriage and contraception).

I also didn't quite enjoy the author's tendency to run off on a tangent whenever it presented itself - a short bit on 20th century funeral customs? It was a bit distracting to be 'pulled' out of the period like that. But still, a reasonably good book and read.
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LibraryThing member soubrette
I really enjoyed this book (an Early Reviewer ARC). Like everyone else in the US, I learned about the Donner Party in school, but the lessons were mostly along the lines of "eww, they ate people. Don't do that." I finally feel like I understand what happened to the Party and why. The story is heartbreaking and haunted me for some time after I finished the book. I can barely grasp just how tough the pioneers really were. Sadly, I can grasp how venal some of the other characters in the story were.

Mr. Brown keeps the action flowing throughout the book. It's a quick read b/c it's so interesting. A section at the end, where the author retraces some of the route of the Donner Party is less interesting but contains some beautiful writing and is worth reading for that alone. Also interesting is a section that details what happened to the surviving members of the Donner Party.

The book itself is well-written, interesting, and fast-paced. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in adventure stories, history, and the like.
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LibraryThing member cbell
The Indifferent Stars Above is a well-researched and fresh telling of the famously disastrous Donner Party. With coverage of the full journey from Midwest through to California, the travelers' mistakes are slow building, but apparent. If you can look past the periodic present-day asides--perhaps of interest to the author alone--the story is fully compelling and presented with emotion, but not sensationalism. The book remains surprisingly suspenseful throughout and a solidly engaging read.… (more)
LibraryThing member brainella
Daniel James Brown has written a very detailed account of the history of the Donner Party especially as it might have pertained to a specific woman, Sarah Foster. The Donner Party is a compelling and sad story in the history of the frontier, and this account is well researched and formatted. The only problem with this book is the excessive writing about details that do not pertain to the story. Relating much of the weather, geographical and historical matter to current events is interesting, but it detracts from the story so much that I had to skip multiple paragraphs to get back to the original topic. That is extremely frustrating to say the least! Where was this guy's editor?

I like that he chose a specific person to focus on in this tale and how she would have been affected by the journey. I would have liked to have had more concrete details, but I don't know that they exist. Weaving the information about the multiple groups brought together in this tale -- the Donners, the Breems, the Reeds -- was well done.

The research is excellent. If you can get past the excessive, superfluous information you will really be intrigued and enjoy the book.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
Like most people, I am aware of the bare facts of what happened to the Donner party, but not the total story. I picked up Daniel James Brown's "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride" to find out the real story.

The book was successful in laying out the difficult times the Donner Party faced as it attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada through a difficult pass at the wrong time of year. The writing was clear and concise and told the story well.

What I didn't like about the book was that I didn't feel Brown was particularly successful in his mission to tell the story of one person in particular -- Sarah Graves Fosdick. I also didn't like how he broke the story frequently with asides about today's science and technology.

Finally, Brown occasionally reports things as fact but doesn't say how he came to that conclusion until dozens of pages later. (For example, he reports one of the travels was murdered but everyone thought he was killed by Native Americans. How does Brown know that the murder happen? Lots of pages later, he mentions the deathbed confession by one of the assailants. This information should have been grouped together not spread pages and pages apart.

Anyway, I feel I got what I wanted out of the book-- a better understanding of the Donner Party circumstances.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
An LT Early Reviewer Book.

I think this book book might have made me sick. I'm not sure, and really it wasn't that gruesome - I mean despite that cannibalism part. But, I did go a few days with an upset stomach, and I got better right after I finished the book. Really.

What it did do was create a pioneer experience. It's 1846, on brink of the Mexican-American war manipulated by James K. Polk, when newly married Sarah Graves Fosdick leaves Illinois with the Graves family, including about 8 younger siblings, to travel over the plains, through South Pass and then over the Sierra Nevada into California. We follow her, or at least the various groups she travels with, all the way to the bitter end.

Did I mention this was an experience? This is a popular history that can fully brings us in. I felt I was able to really get a sense of how crazy these pioneers were, what they were up against, how young they were, how stubborn and resilient plowing through endless problems. The Donner Party gets extra-credit for their fateful mistake of following the "Hasting's Cut-off," a "short cut" that lead them across the Wasatch mountains where they literary had to cut the trees down to pass through, and then on to a walk across the salt plains without water for days. It cost them a full month, a delay which lead directly to their disturbing iconic fate.

Brown uses a large bags of tricks to make this book work, one of which is simply some exceptional nonfiction writing. He also brings in a various interesting ideas and facts on things like the causes of the anomalous weather that winter, the psychology associated with hypothermia/hunger/ etc. I would say the tricks kind of come apart at the end, after the drama has passed, where Brown doesn't quite manage to bring the story to a close...IMHO. But, by that point he had already fully captured my attention, and I'll forgive him and give it a full five stars.

Highly recommended to anyone curious about the plains or the early history of the American West. Gently recommended to about everyone else, because while I don't think anyone needs to know so much detail about the the Donner story, it's fun to learn it.
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LibraryThing member mhleigh
In 1846, Sarah Graves’ life is full of promise. She is newly married and traveling with her large family to a better life, the bountiful land of California. Their party gets a start late in the season, however, and then are tragically convinced by a self-serving scoundrel to take a “proven short cut” over the mountains which promises to shave miles off their distance. This fateful choice leads the Graves family to be part of the Donner party, whose story is well known in the story of American westward expansion. The author recounts the story of the Donner party while focusing specifically on the ordeal of the twenty-one year old woman, while also giving the reader significant historical, medical, and psychological background information relating to trial, starvation, and trauma.

I have read books about the Donner party before and was happy to see that this work avoids some of the pitfalls of other books. The author does not sensationalize the party, and generally does not broach the more shocking experiences of the party until the individuals involved themselves reach the point of no return. Additionally, Sarah Graves is a person often more or less overlooked in the party, as evidenced by the fact that while other Donner Party survivors were fairly infamous in their local communities, Sarah goes largely unnoticed as part of the expedition. Even though the work is written as non fiction, it largely has the flow and voice of a novel, making it a fairly quick read. My only complaint is that the author has a penchant for getting off track and providing the reader with tangents. Although this comes from the place of wanting to give his audience a fuller appreciation of the time period or events, many of the off shoots only serve to interrupt and distract from the story. For instance, while it is an interesting tidbit to learn that a castrated male lives an average of 13.6 years longer than an “intact” male, this does not add anything to the story of Sarah or the Donners. The book contains some chapter notes, and more of these “helpful” facts should also be relegated to this status.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
A fascinating account of the ordeal the Donner party experienced. If this incident intrigues you read this book.
LibraryThing member schatzi
Before reading this book, I was only vaguely aware of the Donner Party, which had only been mentioned in passing in one of my high school history books. Of course, most of what I knew (and, likely, most of what the average American knows) about the Donner Party is that they had to resort to cannibalism to survive after being snowed in during a mountain crossing. Of course, there is a lot more to the story than just that aspect, and the author covers it well.

The author follows the entire ill-fated Donner Party, but he tries to pay particular attention to Sarah Graves Fosdick, a newlywed traveling with her mother, father, assorted siblings, and new husband. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that there isn't a lot of primary sources about Sarah available. I'm sure that the author found most, if not all, of what is available about her, but the amount of information is relatively small, and he has to rely on saying she "probably felt" or "must have seen" a great deal.

There is a lot of information here; the author doesn't just offer a straight narrative of what happened. Instead, he attempts to paint a picture of what life was like at the time, touching on such topics as the Mexican War, gender roles, and how being descendents of those who fought in the American Revolution shaped attitudes and beliefs. As someone who loves history, I really enjoyed the extra information, and I think it painted a more complete picture of the Donner Party.

I would have liked more pictures of the places described; I found myself consulting Google quite regularly while reading this book. And the epilogue felt rather unnecessary; I understand that the author felt connected to the Donner Party, especially since his great-uncle was connected to them, but it just felt like he was trying to insert himself into the story at the end. Also, I think the appendix could have been more helpful. It includes who was living where and with whom, which is nice to know, but I would have appreciated a list of who survived and who didn't, as well; there were a lot of people in the Donner Party, with many of them mentioned only in passing. It is hard to keep them straight and to remember who was living at certain points.

Altogether, I recommend this book for those interested in this period of history. It definitely demonstrates that our ancestors were some tough birds; I can't imagine living through what they experienced.
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LibraryThing member book58lover
I am reading this now, so I don't want it to count against me. Will posts ASAP
LibraryThing member gbelik
This book alternates between tedious and fascinating. I listened to it as audio book so who took each route became a little confusing without a map to follow along.
LibraryThing member clanoneves
The breathtaking historical account of the dangers the American dream and manifest destiny posed in the eighteenth century was in a word: incredible. Risking not only the happiness and future success of their children, but also their lives in the hope of a better world, millions of emigrants crossed the burgoning nation to bountiful new lands. Of the innumerable flock that traversed the Oregon Trail, one group was led astray into the halls of infamy among the other horrific tragedies in human history such as the Titanic or more recently, the Andes flight disaster. This raw retelling of what happened over a 150 years ago in my own backyard was enough to draw me to tears and give me vivid nightmares, but was more than worth it. Though the struggle the Donner Party faced is now difficult for a modern reader to comprehend, Daniel James Brown does a fantastic job relating our world to theirs and painting a beautiful albeit it sorrow-filled picture to examine this preventable disaster like a dectective at the scene of a crime. I must insist you give "The Indifferent Stars Above" a chance as it will not only connect you to America's not so distant past, but also look at yourself through the lense Brown provices and in the face of all adversity realize hope is necessary.… (more)



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