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To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the…

To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

by Skila Brown

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TO STAY ALIVE by Skila Brown tells the story of Mary Ann Graves and the tragic Donner Party.

Set in 1846, this young adult novel tells the fictionalized story of a young survivor of the Donner Party. Based on the real people, places, and events, Brown uses a novel-in-verse approach to share the hardships of the journey West.

Librarians will find this well-researched novel to be a nice companion to the many nonfiction works about the Donner Party already found in the library collection. Work with history teachers to create a class reading list that includes the growing number of historical novels-in-verse now available for middle and high school students. Students who enjoy books about survival will find this haunting, historical work to be a sober change of pace from other adventure stories.

Published by Candlewick on October 11, 2016. ARC courtesy of the publisher. ( )
  eduscapes | Oct 15, 2017 |
In mid-Spring 1846, nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves left Illinois with her parents and eight brothers and sisters because her father wanted to begin a new life in California. Accompanied by horses, cattle, oxen, and almost everything they owned stuffed into three wagons, the family began their 1900-mile long walk.

As there was safety in numbers, they later joined up with a wagon train led by George Donner. Together they continued heading towards California, certain the trip would only take a few more months. If they had known of the dangers and the cost to their families that lay on the road ahead after they became lost for 32 days, they would all have stayed in Illinois…

Mary’s account of the horrors of their trip, which included death, starvation, freezing cold and mountainous terrain, will transfix readers. One hundred and seventy years later, all that they faced are brought to life in poetic verse.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

Book review link: https://shouldireaditornot.wordpress.com/2016/12/24/to-stay-alive-mary-ann-grave... ( )
  sunshinealma | Dec 24, 2016 |
"The men think they’re following a trail ... But I know."

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for cannibalism and domestic violence.)

There’s only a little gap between rain and snow,
an open window of sunshine to go,
it all must be timed just right
or it will go all wrong,
like a cup of tea that slips
from too hot to too cold
without leaving enough time
in between to drink it.


He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.


When you picture the Donner Party, of course cannibalism is the first thing to come to mind. OF COURSE. After all, it's THE reason this ill-fated expedition made it into the history books: the gruesome lengths that many of the surviving members had to go to to stay alive. And yet murder and cannibalism isn't where their stories begin, or end. There's also romance, adventure, and optimism. A can-do spirit and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even if this dream is built on the backs of those who lived here before us.

(Several times, the caravan's livestock is freed/stolen by "Indians" - who I couldn't help but root for - and Brown briefly mentions the indigenous populations in the Author's Note. When the killing starts, it's the group's Native American guides who are the first to go.)

In To Stay Alive, Skila Brown reconstructs these events through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when she and her family set out from their home in Lacon, Illinois to make a new life California. The already-arduous journey turned deadly when the Donner-Reed Party, as it came to be known, found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, just a hundred-odd miles shy of their destination. While the majority of the party made camp next to Truckee Lake in anticipation of the spring thaw, supplies quickly dwindled, and so a small group set out on foot to find help. When they ran out food, they were forced to eat the dead to survive - first those felled by starvation and hypothermia, and then those murdered for food. (I'm not sure how closely To Stay Alive reflects reality, but the whole murdering-people-for-food thing seems a little more controversial IRL.)

To Stay Alive is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it's a novel written in verse and 2) its intended audience, which is middle grade readers.

I'm generally a fan of stories told in verse, and I think it works quite nicely here. This is a harrowing and gory tale, yet the narrative structure - and the simple, sparse language it demands - kind of prevents us from dwelling too heavily on the more sensational details. And this also mirrors the narrator's own experience: think too hard on the fact that you're devouring your former traveling mate's right thigh, and your stomach is apt to reject the nourishment you so need.

Some readers will no doubt consider this subject matter completely inappropriate for younger readers. Yet Brown handles the cannibalism with sensitivity and nuance. On a more personal note, I'd like to say that I hated history in middle and high school. It was easily one of my least favorite subjects, maybe only after geology. As an adult, though, I love it - a renaissance sparked by James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. History - the real, raw, unsanitized, morally complex history that real people really lived through - is damn fascinating. I would've loved this book as a kid - and, perhaps more importantly, it might have inspired me to do some additional research on my own.

The Graveses were just one of many families that joined the Donner-Reed caravan traveling west that season; but theirs isn't the first (or even the second) name to pop into your head when thinking back on the Donner Party. So Brown's choice to focus on Miss Graves is an interesting one. Described as "the belle of the Donner Party," Mary Anne was linked to several of the eligible bachelors who accompanied her, including John Snyder and Charles Stanton. While this is all conjecture, Brown uses it as an opportunity to inject a little romance (and female empowerment) into the story.

The book begins in spring, with rebirth and excitement and optimism in the air; as exhaustion sets in, summer ushers in tedium: clothes stiff with sweat and grime, feet laid bare by worn shoes, and a sense of doom as supplies run low and the livestock falls away. Yet even this is a source of nostalgic musings when Mary Ann faces the horrors of that winter. Brown expertly captures the shifting moods of the Graves family, and the caravan as whole. I especially loved the unexpected moments of humor between Mary Ann, her sister Sarah, and her newfound friend Amanda.

The landscape is captivating AF; you could almost say that the Great Plains and western deserts are their own characters. I especially loved watching the caravan pass through Missouri; I relocated to the area after I graduated college (and have lived here longer than I care to admit!). I actually adopted dogs six and seven, Mags and her son Finnick, from the St. Joe pound. So the name drop gave me a kick.

I was lucky enough to read an early copy of To Stay Alive, but the formatting threw me off a bit: some of the line breaks were wonky, others questionable; some of the verse even appeared as a block of text, as in a paragraph. I'm certain that this will be cleaned up for the final version, but it did interrupt the flow. I enjoyed the verse, but think it will positively sing when it appears as intended.

http://www.easyvegan.info/2016/10/19/to-stay-alive-by-skila-brown/ ( )
  smiteme | Sep 4, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0763678112, Hardcover)

Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846.

The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, maybe some romance, better opportunities for all. But when winter comes early to the Sierra Nevada and their group gets a late start, the Graves family, traveling alongside the Donner and Reed parties, must endure one of the most harrowing and storied journeys in American history. Amid the pain of loss and the constant threat of death from starvation or cold, Mary Ann’s is a narrative, told beautifully in verse, of a girl learning what it means to be part of a family, to make sacrifices for those we love, and above all to persevere.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 09 Aug 2016 20:53:10 -0400)

A young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846 describes how her family and others became victims of freezing temperatures and starvation.

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