My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stewart focuses on forming an accurate logistical picture of the travels and trials of 87 members of the Donner Party against a harsh environment, whose wagon train came together around July 1846 near the Great Salt Lake and headed to California over a newly inspired yet little tested route over a dangerously steep pass in the Sierra Nevadas, which the trusted and well-traveled Hastings recommended they try in order to save 300 miles had they taken the known (and therefore safer) emigration trail around the mountains. Unfortunately the going is rough in Utah and Nevada, and they are doomed to hunker down and camp beside what is now known as Donner Lake. This tale of tragedy and triumph ends in April 1847, after several relief parties (often comprised of family members of the original caravan) made successful rescues over the course of the long and brutal winter featuring several devastating storms packing snow 30+ feet in some parts. Amazingly, 42 of the 87 characters (many of whom are painted in thin brushstrokes by the author, but just enough to begin caring about them) make it out of the mountains and down to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, a lush valley ripe for settling, and the promised land which was the basis for most of the families making the trip in the first place. Many, including the Donners, had been farmers in the midwest, and envisioned taking a grand adventure in a well-orchestrated way (books and goods and kitchen utensils and blankets all packed into wagons driven by teams of oxen with cattle and pack animals behind) providing comfort for the many women and children, some as young as one year old. The families were mainly of Irish and German and English descent, and we get a glimpse into the different and resourceful ways they survive, as the elements ultimately cause each family to fall back on itself for support. As a city dweller in the 21st century, I could only marvel at the kind of grit and determination displayed by these pioneering folk 200 years ago. As the winter progressed, the snowbanks rose far above the chimney tops of the cabins they built lakeside. Game was scarce. Only timber and religion were of endless supply to them. The ones who were snowed in at the camps had mostly to combat slow starvation and cramped conditions. They lived off of rawhide before resorting to cannibalism as a last resort on the well-preserved bodies of the dead in the snow. Some went mad. The ones who ventured out from time to time in last ditch efforts to cross the towering pass to the 100 mile or so stretch of canyons and valleys which lay on the other side to take them down to Sacramento, showed incredible tenacity and spirit. Others were selfish and cowardly, and abandoned all scruples in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Such was the kind of language the author used to recount the stories. A bit old-fashioned but powerful nevertheless, and kept me reading well past my bedtime!
Here are some vivid images circling my mind still, well portrayed by the author. A man wrapped in blankets propped up against a snowbank beside a campfire, smoking the last of tobacco after saying goodbye and courageously telling the hikers to go on without him, and left behind to die alone in the mountains. Five women who made it over the pass on snowshoes, coming into an Indian camp looking like skeletons on broken frostbitten feet and half-clothed, being taken into warming huts and given acorns to break the starvation. A father returning two months after leaving his children in the camp, on a relief mission funded by the rudimentary California-Mexican government, and finding his 8 year old daughter sitting on the edge of the roof of the cabin he built for them, her feet scraping the receding snowbanks. In the time he was absent, he had survived war, flood, fire, starvation, cold, and thirst. Unlike the others, his entire family would survive the ordeal and live to tell. Another image of a group of nine hikers, long starved, mostly young children, holding on for dear life in the midst of a snowstorm in the mountains, 30 feet down in a hollow made by a campfire which grew and ultimately sunk down into the snow by the heat, and made a space large enough for all of them to climb down into, to stay warm until days later when they were found. One who had died there had their liver and heart taken for boiling for sustenance of the remainder. Solitary men and women at Sutter’s Fort, finally arrived, gazing back to the foothills every day, wishing and wondering whether their loved ones were still alive on the other side.