Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Donner Party

The story of the Donner Party, which survived a winter in the snowy Sierra through incredible courage, determination, and a touch of cannibalism, has fascinated the American public ever since the ill-fated 1846-47 trip.

Dozens of books and memoirs have been written about the wagon train party that left Missouri in late October 1846, part of a massive migration west that would pick up steam after gold was discovered in California in 1848. The 81-member group made a major miscalculation by taking a time-consuming and improperly named shortcut over the Wasatch Mountains that prevented it from crossing the Sierra before the winter snows set in.

Surprisingly, the best-known non-fiction book on the subject, Ordeal By Hunger, was published by George Rippey in the 1930s. Since then, new documents, diaries and letters have come to light and archeologists have led new expeditions to Donner Lake and Alder Creek, the two sites members of the Donner Party spent the winter.

Now journalist Ethan Rarick has written Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, drawing from the new documents and new information about what happens to humans as they slowly starve. It got a rave review in the New York Times Book Review. I went to hear him speak last night at Cody’s Books in Berkeley. Even though I thought I knew about the Donner Party (I had read Ordeal by Hunger as well as James Houston’s magnificent novel Snow Mountain Passage) I was moved by Rarick’s descriptions of those who survived.

Rarick believes that the Donner Party continues to fascinate people not because of the cannibalism, but because the story illuminates how regular people survived in extraordinary circumstances. Most survival stories turned into books feature military men or famous explorers like Shakelton or Hilary, not ordinary mothers and fathers.

“There’s much we can learn about regular people in extraordinary circumstances,” Rarick said. “That’s the story of the Donner Party.”

Rarick was one of the last writers to speak from the Cody’s on Fourth Street. The store is moving to Shattuck Street in downtown Berkeley and will reopen on April 1. All the books in the store are 40% off and as Rarick spoke, I saw people with stacks of books walking to the cash register. The store is looking pretty empty but there are still lots of great deals.

I also had a chance to go last week to hear Michelle Richmond read from her book The House of Fog, just released in paperback. Richmond will talk tonight (March 12) at A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair. I stopped in that bookstore yesterday and the owner Kathleen Caldwell said the book was selling briskly. I see that it is #8 on the Chronicle paperback best-seller list. The Chronicle named it one of its ten best books of 2007. I have just started it and can vouch that it is a page turner. Richmond is a beautiful writer who can also craft a compelling plot.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I am so sorry I missed that reading! I will definitely check out the book. I used to be totally obsessed with the Donner Party. My favorite book on the topic is a book length poem by George Keithely, entitled (duh) The Donner Party. It's incredibly moving and powerful.

LK said...

I've read a couple of Donner tales, including the Ordeal by Hunger, and I have to say, Rarick's version pales by comparison. I think he just sucked all the drama out of it and even skipped details. Didn't shed any new light, I don't think. James Houston's novel is ambitious and very well done.