When George Donner posted an ad on March 18, 1846 in a Springfield, Illinois newspaper under the title Westward, Ho! for Oregon and California, his goal was free land to any settler who would claim it. Eighty-nine people, nearly half of them children, set out with him. Just over half survived.
Allan Wolf’s poetic approach to this tragic history, which he calls narrative pointillism, inspires empathy. He uses language in the spare cadences of necessity as the venturers struggle through a desert and mountainous terrain, burdened by wagonloads of furniture, food, children, and the elderly. Elements written like call and response help young adult readers to hear these people’s sorrows and joys. Diary excerpts show fragmentary inner thoughts of Mr. Patrick Breen. There is a family by the name of Graves, not through poetic invention, rather the irony of truth. As the first deaths occur, snow begins to fall and occasional pages are filled with flurries of the word “snow” intermixed with the names of those who have starved, were murdered, or otherwise befell ill fate. Vignettes of a banquet of foods shaped from snow and a minuscule bit of meat hidden in the finger of a glove help some children survive. And throughout the book, the word hunger appears, as a yearning and a physical condition of need, in descriptions of the stages of life-threatening deprivation and in echoes of desperation. Then the blizzards come and the snow is literally “three graves deep.” Yet of the 89 who all seemed destined to succumb, forty-eight survived, including thirty-one children.
By giving each of the major players a convincing individual voice, we see that torturous journey of hope and opportunity vividly through the émigrés’ eyes. According to James Reed, who is confident that he is right until he makes a fatal mistake, “Everyone’s your friend…so long as their bellies are full.” His eight-year-old daughter Patty Reed, The Angel, sends buoyant prayers wafting heavenward on behalf of friend and stranger alike. Tamzene Donner, cultured, educated (in Newburyport, MA, seven miles from me), is a confident teacher with a collection of books in her wagon and wife of George Donner. She calculates that the train of wagons travels at two and a quarter miles per hour for fifteen miles on a good day. Baptiste, whose only family are the oxen Buck and Bright, grows close to the Donner children. Two Miwok vaqueros, Salvador and Luis, argue the pros and cons of faithfulness. After enduring the horrors of base acts, pragmatic Mrs. Breen says, “You have to forgive in order to live; but if you forget, you’re a fool.”
The most exceptional narrator is Hunger…Hunger who understands human strength and its limits, who can foresee the inconceivable actions that lie ahead. “Curiosity is just a variety of hunger. Hunger is just a variety of hope.” Until physical hunger, which is starvation’s rusted sword, claims lives. After blizzards wreak their havoc, Hunger considers four humans who have died and lie in a shallow pit. “Bodies that used to be people, but now are not.” Meanwhile, the remaining travelers are wracked by famine, which forced the choice between cannibalism and death.
At a fork in the trail, the Donner party takes the wrong path. They traverse the Great Salt Lake desert and spend two weeks hacking through forest to carve a road. Then the snows fall. Eventually, they lose every wagon, all cattle and horses, and all belongings.
How deep was the snow? As deep as what I have seen with my own eyes. In 2005 Egils and I were to snowshoe with our daughter Melody and her husband Sati to the Peter Grubb Hut for an overnight near Donner Pass. The rumor was that you look for a shovel tied to a pole on the chimney and dig down to enter the cabin. We drove from Oakland up into the Sierras, but a blizzard was raging and the Highway Patrol had closed Highway 80. We tried waiting it out in a bowling alley hoping the highway would open, but no luck. Nine feet of snow fell during that storm on top of ten feet that had fallen the previous weekend. A few days later, we returned. Some gargantuan snowblower had cleared the local road, leaving a cleanly sliced vertical canyon with nineteen-foot walls. That is the depth of three tall men. Or “three graves deep,” if the dead were standing when buried. We snowshoed up to Andesite Peak overlooking the mountains the Donner party had tried to traverse. If they had only known… That angular landscape is a vast and rugged range dotted with sugar pines and other burly trees. The staggering amount of snow was the dominant impression. We went in hip deep in places, even with snowshoes.
It is incredible that any of those intrepid émigrés endured. Unfortunately, their survival required deplorable behavior. Allan Wolf fills this story with visions of real people. After a blizzard like the one we experienced, four children are kept alive by the warmth of five dogs, “warm as corn kernels in a roasted husk.”
The lusciously painted cover art created by Sterling Hundley perfectly depicts the forest slope, the draw of fire, and the weary travelers facing their fate.
Supplementary information at the end of the book describes biographies of the protagonists, a timeline, statistics, and a bibliography adding to the picture that the author paints of this historic tragedy. This is a vividly written account of an amazing true story for young adults.
This review is of an ARC sent to me by Candlewick
416 pages / young adult / publication date – September 8, 2020