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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.