Title – The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride
Author: Daniel James Brown
2009 – Nonfiction
Rating – 4/5
Source – TLC Book Tours
The Story: In April of 1846, Sarah Graves was torn between two seemingly contradictory options. She could either follow her family as they set off along the Oregon Trail in search of a better life or she could stay and marry the violinist that she loved. But the choice was made for her when her young man decided to marry her and come along. The families loaded up their wagons with plenty of provisions and set off in search of California. But they couldn’t imagine the horrors in front of them when they joined up with the Donner party and took a dubious “shortcut” to California.
The Opening Line (taken from author’s note): Even well after the tragedy was over, Sarah Graves’s little sister Nancy often burst into tears for no apparent reason.
Review: I don’t know how I first learned about the Donner party, but it seems like it’s something that everyone knows just a little about, if not the whole story. I’m not sure where I picked up the knowledge I do have – did I read about it, watch a documentary, hear it in passing? I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t taught in school. But mention the Donner tragedy to almost anyone and they will immediately associate it with the taboo practice of cannibalism. Without even knowing the rest of the story, the two are irrevocably intertwined.
The Indifferent Stars Above sets out to educate its readers on the complexities and peculiar circumstances that led to tragedy and unthinkable decisions. From political and cultural backgrounds to the prevailing attitudes and social mores of the time to details about life on the trail, Brown weaves a tale of hardship, desperation, and above all else, hope. Hope for a better life, a fresh start, new opportunities. I couldn’t even fathom the idea of a man choosing to take his family on such a long and arduous journey, but Brown deftly writes of the motivations that led to so many families embarking on the trail.
I think one of the lesser known aspects of the Donner party story is the chain of events that led to tragedy and disaster. It wasn’t just that the party started on its journey a little too late in the season, although that did play a part. It was also a chain of everyday disasters on the trail, the decision to take a “shortcut” that ended up adding time to their journey, the unique weather patterns of the year. All in all, a perfect storm of events culminated in the party being snowbound in the mountains, facing a long winter with little shelter and few provisions.
This is a story of disaster, yes. But it is also a story of hope, bravery, morality, and family. It is a story of cowardice, revenge, murder, and yes, cannibalism. To only associate the Donner party with that taboo practice would do a disservice to the number of men, women, and children who fought so hard to survive. To the men who mounted rescue parties and returned multiple times to escort their own families to safety, risking their own lives. To those already established in California who sent along supplies and provided nourishment and safety to survivors.
Brown’s book, while at times delving into speculation over such things as feelings and intents, is one primarily grounded in fact and research. Spanning everything from weather patterns to modern research into PTSD, The Indifferent Stars Above is a fantastic guide to the true story of the Donner party, one that I highly recommend for those with any interest in the tale at all.