The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (Review)

Review

Most people in states along the old emigrant trails across the U.S. have at least heard of The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by [Brown, Daniel James]the Donner Party and the unfortunate events that befell them. In The Indifferent Stars
Above, 
Daniel James Brown retells the tale with a focus on a particular individual – Sarah Graves – and her family, who threw their lot in with the Donners and Reeds to tragic effect.

Brown’s style is intimate, novelistic, and readable, with an effective mix of historical detail, dramatic narrative, and science-fact analysis. For example, after relaying a captivating scene depicting the seemingly abnormal severity of the Sierran weather in 1846-47, Brown breaks to briefly explain what we know about the weather that year and how we know it.

While the author’s ability to mix a stirring historical account with informative detail is one of the book’s main strengths, the author’s tendency to also interject personal thoughts, conjecture, feelings, and opinions may be counted among its two primary weaknesses. However, these instances are rare enough to be overlooked in most cases, and some readers will recognize them as an effort to further humanize the people and the story, and to make them more immediately relatable. As the author points out, historical figures and events often seem so distant and removed from familiar experience that they are reduced to the names and faded daguerreotypes that have come to represent them, and it takes a special effort of imagination to restore them to full humanity.

The book’s second major weakness is its lack of supplemental materials. Besides a few photos of the primary characters and locations, there are none. Most glaringly,
there are no maps, and no index. Readers interested in photos, maps, and other historical artefacts will need a second source*.

Overall, The Indifferent Stars Above is an example of excellent narrative nonfiction, and is recommended for readers who enjoy this genre. The subject should appeal to a wide audience, but especially to those whose knowledge of the Donner Party is in the “none to moderate” range.

Personal Note

Growing up in Northern California, the Donner Party was always part of the fabric of regional history and folklore. In grade school I went on field trips to the Donner Memorial State Park, and drove over Donner Pass frequently on the way to camping trips near Lake Tahoe. That said, the story was never something I paid particular attention to. I knew the general outline of the history, but few details.

For my current job, I drive over the Sierras at Donner Pass three times a week and, when I think about it, it makes me wonder at the privilege we enjoy in modern technology and travel (especially in winter). Yet even today the Sierras in winter are still formidable. I’ve been stranded by snow storms on the wrong side of the pass on three separate occasions in the past two years, and although I weathered the inconvenience comfortably in a hotel room, the experience instilled a respect for the power of nature and the mountains in me nonetheless.

Reading this book brought home to me the stunning fortitude, effort, energy, faith, and hope it took just to embark on a journey such that undertaken by the emigrants of the 1840s, and the depth of the tragedy that befell the Donner/Reed party in the mountains. It is, as the subtitle declares, a harrowing tale, but well worth the read for anyone with an interest in American history. For me, it was particularly intriguing given my familiarity and acquaintance with so many of the places and regions in which the story unfolds.

Ratings

  • Style: A (narrative; novelistic)
  • Tone: B+ (engaging; interesting; not sensational; somewhat personal)
  • Pace: A (steady; maintains interest; narrative flows nicely)
  • Format: A (very readable; chapters broken into segments and scenes)
  • Supplementals: C (no maps!?)
  • Appeal: A
  • Overall: A-

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party / by Daniel James Brown; published by Harper Perennial, c2009; paperback, 337 pages.

*For a source of pictures and maps, I recommend The Donner Party chronicles: A day by day account of a doomed wagon train, 1846-47 by Frank Mullen, Jr.