Desperate Passage

The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Rarick, Ethan, 1964-

Book - 2008
Average Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.
Desperate Passage
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In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened, what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion, remained shrouded in myth. Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. But Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixtureof generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity." A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, A Desperate Hope casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.

Published: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2008.
ISBN: 0195305027
9780195305029
Branch Call Number: 979.437 RAR
Characteristics: 288 p., [8] p. of plates :,ill., map ;,25 cm.

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Mar 09, 2015
  • danielestes rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

In the modern American lexicon, the Donner Party is synonymous with cannibalism. The average person knows next to nothing about these people or what drove them to do what they did, but everyone seems to know the one detail that matters: They ate each other. The actual truth is more nuanced than that, but there's no getting around that the story of the Donner Party is one of the most infamous examples of cannibalism in human history.

Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage starts at the very beginning, at the head of the California Trail in Independence, Missouri. It was May 1846 and, as the pioneers of the time knew, that was an awfully late start date for a wagon party heading west. The risk of winter arriving before they did was too high. This was the first of series of unfortunate decisions that would, compounded over time, lead the emigrants towards historical notoriety.

Two points jumped out at me while I was reading. (1) To be trapped in the mountains during the early winter of 1846 under the circumstances that led to, not immediate death, but cannibalism was a result of an improbable confluence of timing. It's like the stars aligned in the worst way—geographic terrain, time of year, etc. Each factor had a small window that could lead to big problems and in each case the timing was disastrously perfect. (2) The Donner story is one of extraordinary actions under unimaginably desperate conditions, and yet the tale that people told for half a century afterwards painted the survivors as monsters. Why the lack of sympathy? Rarick supposes when sharing stories of westward expansion, of manifest destiny in other words, the storytellers preferred optimism over despair. The tragedy occurred just a few years ahead of the California Gold Rush and it's not hard to imagine that pioneers wanted reasons to push onward, not to stay away.

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