Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Indifferent Stars Above

Need I admit it on every post? Yes, I have a book problem. So many intriguing titles come up on my radar that I am constantly adding to my stacks of books in the house and my Amazon wishlists. Some sit in the queue for years while others jump into line ahead of them. I'm still trying to get around to reading all of the classics of American history, not to mention working through all of the great history books that come out every year. For example, can you believe I'm just now getting around to reading Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?" And not that new version either. I'm reading the paperback version from 1971 that I found in a used bookstore years ago...but I digress...

The Indifferent Stars Above cover imageIn 2010 I saw a book about the Donner Party that looked interesting at the time, but I put it on the back burner while I was into a WWII phase with occasional injections of Civil War and French and Indian War books. Lately I have been getting into western history (Wild West?) subjects and California history so I went down to the library (my library's online catalog has wishlists too!) and checked out "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of A Donner Party Bride" by Daniel James Brown. I liked it. I would urge you to give it a read.

If, for some reason, you've never heard the story of the Donner Party, here's the gist: In 1846, the first major year of travel on the Oregon Trail and the California Trail, several families including a few single workers, their oxen, horses, dogs, etc. take a recommended "shortcut" that in fact puts them more than a month late in crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are trapped for the winter at the top of the mountains, running out of food, eating all of their animals, and eventually some of their own people who died from starvation and exposure. After the survivors were rescued the event became stuff of legend. Donner Pass along Interstate 80 and a California State Park were named for the pioneer group and every student in California public schools learns the tale.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that one of the hallmarks of a good book for me is when I either learn about something I didn't know, or some mythology was dispelled. That was certainly the case with Indifferent Stars. Having grown up in California I held on to the sanitized version of the Donner Party tale as taught to me in school. I thought that they were a cohesive group of family and friends who, under the leadership of (obviously) the patriarch of the Donner family and through no fault of their own, were caught by early snow storms in the mountains and suffered the consequences. A cautionary tale indeed, meant to make the junior high version of the Roving Historian understand the hardships of the pioneers.

Here's the truth as illuminated by Daniel Brown:
The group of three families and some single hired men that became known as the Donner Party did not really come together until they left Fort Bridger in modern day southwest Wyoming. The wagons caught up to each other attempting to make it through "Hastings Cutoff," a supposed shortcut blazed by historic ne'er-do-well Landsford Hastings. The cutoff turned out to be a trail uncut for wagons through the Wasatch mountains of Utah. Rather than saving time it cost the pioneers weeks, thus causing the emigrants to get caught in the Sierras by impassable amounts of snow.

The party was under the leadership of George Donner in name alone. Actually Franklin Graves, the father of the bride referred to in the subtitle of the book, turns out to be a more capable, while informal, leader of the group. Rather than operating as a cohesive team fighting against the elements, the situation more or less turned into "every family for themselves." There were actually three different camp sites in the pass and, with few exceptions, each family hoarded their own supplies. Yes, there were several, independent, incidences of cannibalism.

Daniel Brown writes well. But it is the story itself that makes "The Indifferent Stars Above" a page-turner. There is intrigue, there is murder, there is stupidity, selfishness, and cowardliness. Yet this story also has examples of self-sacrifice, bravery, and fortitude. You'll have the opportunity to transport yourself across time and try to understand what would make a man pack up his family and everything he owns to travel to a mythical land that the only things you know about it were read in a tourist guidebook and where there is a rather good chance that someone you know will die along the way. You will certainly appreciate the hardships of the emigrant trail in reading this "worst case scenario." Much more than the junior high version of you could ever comprehend.

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