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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's…
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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (2008)

by Ethan Rarick

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
The author does a good job of making this history of the ill-fated Donner Party readable. He doesn't exactly put words in the mouths of the people; he uses their diary entries to help with that. He also explains at the end of the book that he feels able to place himself in their shoes by having gone to the locations they were during their ordeal.

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  Stembie3 | Jun 14, 2015 |
I ( )
  TheCelticSelkie | May 9, 2015 |
In the modern American lexicon, the Donner Party is synonymous with cannibalism. The average person knows next to nothing about these people or what drove them to do what they did, but everyone seems to know the one detail that matters: They ate each other. The actual truth is more nuanced than that, but there's no getting around that the story of the Donner Party is one of the most infamous examples of cannibalism in human history.

Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage starts at the very beginning, at the head of the California Trail in Independence, Missouri. It was May 1846 and, as the pioneers of the time knew, that was an awfully late start date for a wagon party heading west. The risk of winter arriving before they did was too high. This was the first of series of unfortunate decisions that would, compounded over time, lead the emigrants towards historical notoriety.

Two points jumped out at me while I was reading. (1) To be trapped in the mountains during the early winter of 1846 under the circumstances that led to, not immediate death, but cannibalism was a result of an improbable confluence of timing. It's like the stars aligned in the worst way—geographic terrain, time of year, etc. Each factor had a small window that could lead to big problems and in each case the timing was disastrously perfect. (2) The Donner story is one of extraordinary actions under unimaginably desperate conditions, and yet the tale that people told for half a century afterwards painted the survivors as monsters. Why the lack of sympathy? Rarick supposes when sharing stories of westward expansion, of manifest destiny in other words, the storytellers preferred optimism over despair. The tragedy occurred just a few years ahead of the California Gold Rush and it's not hard to imagine that pioneers wanted reasons to push onward, not to stay away. ( )
  Daniel.Estes | Feb 24, 2015 |
This is a remarkable tale of survival under the most extreme conditions. In October of 1846, the last westward wagon train of the year, stops before it's final ascent across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unaware of the impending storm and ignorant of the brutal winters here, 81 men, women, and children are caught with little food and meager shelter. As time slowly progresses, desperate decisions are made. ( )
  creighley | Apr 24, 2014 |
If you want to know more about the Donner party, I would highly recommend this book. The retelling of a tragic events, sticking with the details, and trying to give a feel for what it would be like for the Donner party, make this an excellent reading. It is very hard for most people to comprehend what it would be like to be trapped in the mountains without adequate food or clothing and I think the author did a good job by drawing comparisons with other things the reader might be able to relate to. It is amazing that any of these people survived.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Christopher Prince. He had a very good voice for the documentary. His voice was very clear and he did not sound opinionated about the topic. ( )
  AlaskanBookie | Sep 23, 2013 |
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Epigraph
"We were full of hope and did not dream of sorrow."
 - Virginia Reed Murphy, a survivor of the Donner Party, describing the journey's beginning
All of us have dark stirrings of doubt and fear whenever the Donner Party is mentioned.  In such extremis what would we do?  Snow-trapped and starving in the Sierras with no hope of relief, would we fall to devouring each other?  Our fathers?  Our children?  Our lovers?  How close to the animal are we?  How far from the desperate beast?  In the purely physical realm of survival, what justifies what?" - James Dickey
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(Prologue) Margaret Reed spread out a buffalo robe for her children  and then covered them with a shawl.
Stirring in her tent on the soft grass of a prairie spring, Tamzene Donner contemplated the vast expanse of wilderness she was about to enter and decided to bid her sister one last goodbye.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195305027, Hardcover)

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened, what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion, remained shrouded in myth.

Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. But Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity."

A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, A Desperate Hope casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:32 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century and a half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner Party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. But Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner Party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party, " Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity.""--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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