Indifferent Stars Above The Harrowing Story of the Donner Party
Daniel James Brown 2009 337 pages including sources
I started with great expectations. Pat Malberg (Lake Mary on Donner Summit and our esteemed proofreader) had recommended Indifferent Stars Above with enthusiasm and I wondered why I’d never come across it.
At the same time our web development department was completely redoing our website to make it “responsive”, i.e. optimally usable on smart phones, tablets and computers, and more interesting. One of the pages being redone was a book review of Indifferent Stars…. It was a very short review by Margie Powell, DSHS founder. Clearly I’d seen it before.
Margie’s review recommended the book highly saying she couldn’t put it down.
Oh, boy, I thought as I began reading. This would be a good one.
Mr. Brown advertises that the story focuses on one participant in the Donner Party saga, Sarah Graves, so as one begins to read one expects to focus on her. Perhaps, I thought, this will be a fictionalized account of the Donner Party highlighting the experiences of Sarah, a newly married 21 year old. That would be like Truckee’s Trail is to the Stephens Party.
Mr. Brown has done a lot of research on this book reading a large number of books, given as sources at the end. He also retraced the steps of Sarah Graves from Illinois to Donner Lake to California immediately after the tragedy, later in life, and then to where her grave ought to be. The story starts with Sarah having to make a decision. Should she stay in Illinois with her beau and never see her family, including eight siblings, again or go with her family and give up her beau, Jay Fosdick.? This and the many places in the book where the focus is on Sarah humanize the story beyond that of a simple recitation of facts as most of this kind of book do.
The family left Illinois after Franklin Graves, Sarah’s father, sold his land for $1500 and hid the money after in holes augered into one of their farm wagons. Little facts like that are interesting. Sarah and Jay accompanied the family west as newlyweds.
Also interesting are Mr. Brown’s descriptions of what life must have been like on the journey across the continent. In researching his book Brown covered the territory in person as well as in sources. Life was hard, “Mud was their constant companion- it squelched under the heavy feet of the oxen, it plastered the withers of their saddle horses, it flew out from under turning wagon wheels, it splattered their clothes and their hair and their faces. They scraped mud from their boots, they daubed it from their eyes, they combed it out of their hair, they dug it out from under their fingernails, they tasted it in their food, and they cursed it all the while.” That was maybe the smallest of their problems and is an example of Brown’s imagining.
There’s lots more information pertaining to the journey to set the stage after the family left Illinois: Sutter’s background, President Polk and the Mexican War to put things in context, Lansford Hastings and his contemporary and later activities, supplies needed for a trip to California, advice, etc.
One piece of advice came ironically from Lansford Hastings’ book, The Emigrants’ Guide. To California and Oregon. He told emigrants to begin their journey no later than the beginning of May “after which time they must never start, if it can be possibly avoided.” An “Impassable mountain of snow” could detain one until spring or “perhaps forever.” That’s foreshadowing. The Graves left in late May.
Brown imagines activities on the trail. Evenings a fellow would get up on a tail gate and dance. “Two by two, boys and girls would get up and pull off their boots and begin to dance, circling and wheeling around the fire… their warm hands holding other warm hands,… Tune after tune would fly off the fiddles – fast, hot tunes that swirled though the night air… Older folks… would drift toward the fire to watch… and join in, flinging out their arms and legs like drunken chickens… Somebody would start singing, and a chorus would join in,… boisterous sea chanteys, sweet love songs, uplifting spirituals,….”
Then Brown sometimes imagined the personal level. There was guard duty each night and Jay drew his duties. Since his wife, Sarah, had no children, she could join him, “The moon had waned to a thin crescent… When they were sure that it was safe, Sarah and jay could sink in to the prairie grass, lie on their backs, listen to the crickets, stare into the immensity of the heaves, count falling stars as they streaked across the skies, ponder what such things meant. The could pull each other close, brush warm lips, and… lost in each other and in the vastness of the dark prairie night.” Given the troubles with Indians stealing cattle and horses, detailed later, one hopes Jay and Sarah did not do guard duty like that but it makes for a good story giving the human element to the coming drama. If the reader identifies with the character then the character’s later travails or literary conflicts will be felt more strongly.
That said, most of the book is the description of Donner Party troubles much like others have done. Although Sarah is advertised as the focus at the introduction, the emphasis of the early part of the book, and highlighted the “In the Years Beyond” chapter at the end, most of the book is about the general experience of the Donner Party – the rendition of what happened. To keep up the Sarah Graves focus Brown occasionally throws in what Sarah must have been doing at some point. Even the journey of the Forlorn Hope, the group that escaped Donner Lake to go for help, does not focus on what must have been Sarah’s experiences. Brown could have accomplished his focus better had he retold the story as imagined from Sarah’s point of view. He felt, though, that he had to tell the Donner Party story too. That took away from Sarah’s experiences.
That’s not to say the book is not good; it’s just not what was expected. Brown does an admirable job of describing the plight and experiences of the Donner Party. He delineates the problems: arguments, possible murder, murder, abandonment, Indian depredations of livestock, Stanton’s and McCutchen’s going ahead for help, death in a fight, death by accident, and snow. This is all familiar to those who know the story and well told for those who don’t. He tells of the heroism of some like John Stark and Charles Stanton, the mendacity of some like the fourth relief party, Starved Camp, the Forlorn Hope, etc.
He enhances that with asides about what was going on California, hypothermia, starvation, snow blindness, calories needed by people in the situation and calories supplied by dried beef, the winter of ’46 in other places, social issues like childhood, PTSD, cannibalism in history, etc.
Of course the story ends as it really did and there follows a strength of the book, what happened to the characters afterwards. Given the sometimes focus on Sarah Graves/Fosdick the very complete story of her life after the Donner Party is very interesting and leaves the reader wondering how she would have survived after the winter of ’46. She lost both parents in the Donner Tragedy and was left with the care of her siblings. She had no money and no prospects. She was in a strange land. What happened afterwards is really interesting.
Also interesting are Brown’s thoughts on things as he retraced Sarah’s steps. He considered himself and his own daughters who were Sarah’s and Sarah’s sister Mary Ann’s ages. Could they have done it? “I wanted to see if I could intersect Sarah’s trail, to see if it was still visible. Millions of salt crystals glittered and shimmered and crunched beneath my feet as I walked. But it was hot, and after about half a mile of the flare of the sunlight off the salt had narrowed my eyes down to sweaty slits. A quarter of a mile farther on, I’d had enough - my eyes were painfully dry, my head was throbbing, and I felt vaguely nauseated.… I started up the car, turned on the A/C, put my fact to one of the vents, and eagerly sucked up the cool air. My God, I though, those people were tough.” They couldn’t come back to the car and the A/C. when they were tired. They kept going hour after hour, day after day for a couple of thousand miles.
If you have not read about the Donner Party this is a good book. If you have a good knowledge of the story much of this book is a repeat. There is not enough of a focus on Sarah Graves or the asides to make reading about the Donner Party worthwhile. There is no new ground broken and there is so much else to read.
After reading a book on history it's fun to look through the author's sources. Sometimes than can lead to other things. This book has a pages long list of sources. It also includes a couple of websites:
www.utahcrossingroads.org/donnerparty has a “new light on the Donner Party"