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The Donner Party by George Keithley

The Donner Party (1972)

by George Keithley

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The Donner Party by George Keithley (1972)

In April 1846, George Donner and his family, his brother Jacob and his family and friend James Reed and his family set off from Springfield Illinois for California. By November of 1846, the Donner Party along other settlers they had joined were caught in an early snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains. By the time the last surviving member of the 81 member party had been rescued, nearly half of the settlers, including all the adult Donners, had died from cold and hunger. Those that survived were saved by determined rescue parties from California led by James Reed and by their having resorted to cannibalism to avoid starvation.

Keithley's book-length poem is told in a series of monologues narrated by George Donner. The tale is told rather matter-of-factly, focusing mostly on the members of the expedition, the planning and the travelling. But even in the mundaneness, there is a lyrical edge to the description:

Morning the 21th of May,
riding over the river,
we left the States under the oily skies.

500 wagons travelled together
and in no particular order
thru miles of yellow meadow

where slim stems of goldenrod
glistened after the rain.
At dusk we drew up to a stream,

Reed cast from the bank and caught
catfish with whiskers like wire.
So we shovelled a fire

into several shallow holes
and fried the fish
on the red coals.

Most of the characters come across as thoroughly decent souls, especially Donner and his wife Tamsen, who set off with high hopes and much planning (though it was fatally misinformed). There is a villain or two, anger and frustration that lead to violence, some suspicion of emigrants, and distrust among the travellers and their Indian guides, but Keithley examines these issues with subtlety and little condemnation.

One of the delights of the poem is the playful relationship between George Donner and his wife Tamsen that flashes through occasionally. Even near the end of their ordeal after Donner has been badly wounded in an accident trying to repair a wagon, and both are on the edge of starvation, they tease each other:

She whispered,

"Look how my hips
hardly hold a skirt
in place anymore."

As I joined her
in the blanket
on the pine floor

she made a remark
about the slack skin
that flapped on my legs.

She liked to see
the way they shook
but I told her,

"If it's a matter
of their shape surely
yours look better"

She laughed lying
in my arms with
my hand at rest
on her small waist.

After looking at the facts of the expedition, well detailed on the website, "New Light on the Donner Party"
it is reassuring to know that Keithley has been true to the history. Obviously he imagines the characters of the participants and the details of some of the incidents, but this is a true visioning of a significant event in the American history of westward expansion. ( )
  janeajones | Jun 6, 2009 |
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