Donner Party

Snow Mountain Passage:  A Novel, by James D. Houston (Knopf)

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

April 2001 ATLANTIC

black_wallThe subject of this ambitious, literary novel is the Donner party, which in the winter of 1846-1847 was trapped in the Sierra Nevada. Famously, members of this group of overland emigrants resorted to cannibalism, but their story has captured the American imagination less for its ghoulish aspects than for its terrible moral ambiguities. Most iconic tales of disaster and survival involve soldiers, adventurers, and other unattached individuals. The Donner party was a community of families, a community that fragmented when confronted with peril; and in its plight altruism and Christian responsibility contested brutally with love and the bonds of blood. In choosing this subject, James D. Houston has given himself an opportunity to explore complex motives and characters, and his writerly skills are a match for the task. He draws a finely shaded portrait of his history-based protagonist, James Reed, who heroically saves his family and much of the party, but whose pride and compassion were in large measure responsible for the disaster. Houston imaginatively and deftly embellishes the “Trail Notes” of James Reed’s daughter, Patty, who recollected as an old woman her experiences as a child. (Summoning this precocious and forthright witness gave Houston great material to work with: when her mother was forced to abandon Patty in order to trek through the mountains to bring back help, the starved eight-year-old said, “Well, mother, if you never see me again, you do the best you can.”) He has a sure sense of place (I spent part of three summers hiking in the country around what is now Donner Pass; Houston precisely depicts its granite slopes and the subtle shift from the foothills to the Sierra Nevada). And most important, he has a clear-eyed view of humanity’s heart of darkness: a few people acted with enormous courage and selflessness (two of them were rewarded by being hunted down and killed for food), but the behavior of most other members of the party ranged from feckless to mean to evil. Yet this work of fiction can’t match George Stewart’s 1936 history, Ordeal by Hunger—the most terrifying book I’ve read.

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