On April 14, 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois, in search of a better life in the largely unsettled California territory. The trip started well but eventually questionable choices and infighting delayed pioneers' attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada until winter. As the impassable snows closed in and their supplies dwindled to nothing, the group faced an almost hopeless struggle for survival that would push some toward the final taboo of cannibalism. Nearly half the members of the Donner Party were children. This account, filled with selections from the survivors' letters and diaries, focuses on the children's experiences, making it uniquely compelling and accessible to young readers. Index, bibliography, chronology, group rosters, suggestions for further research.
Marian Calabro is a published author with a special interest in biography and history. She lives in New Jersey.
"From the haunting cover with its lonely campfire to the recounting of a survivor's reunion, this is a page-turner." BOOKLIST, starred review Booklist, ALA, Starred Review
Virginia Reed was nearly thirteen in the fateful spring of 1846, when her family joined the families of George and Jacob Donner for their now notorious wagon train trek from Springfield, Illinois, to California. Marian Calabro focuses heavily on Virginia's viewpoint and experiences and makes extensive use of the diaries and letters of several of the travelers to personalize the remarkable tale of a trip gone tragically awry. As in David Lavender's Snowbound , the author here carefully reconstructs the deteriorating chain of events that had begun in luxury and optimism. Was there a root cause of the disaster? Lavender made a strong case for the bad advice about a shortcut promised in Lansford Hastings's book, which the Donners and Reeds were following. Calabro agrees that to a certain extent Hastings was a charlatan, but she provides a fuller account of the mistaken judgments and human dynamics that stranded the group in their deadly winter camp. The banishment of James Reed from the party for the death of John Snyder caused further suffering for Virginia and Patty Reed and their mother. After recounting the desperate days of cannibalism and rescue, the author adds three chapters detailing the rapid immigration to California and Oregon in the years after the Donner group's arrival, the further history of the survivors, and their twentieth-century legacy. A liberal assortment of historical photographs convey the setting and people. The richly detailed and interesting account concludes with the full text of Virginia's long 1847 letter to her cousin back in Springfield, a chronology, roster of the dead, bibliography, websites, and index.
A vivid yet even-handed account of the ill-fated Donner Partythe California-bound wagon train that was forced by impassable snow to camp for the winter of 184647 on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, resorting to cannibalism when there was literally nothing else to eat. Calabro neither shrinks from nor sensationalizes this aspect of the story. Instead she places it in a carefully constructed context beginning with the start of the journey in Springfield, Illinois, on April 15, and chronicling each unfortunate decision along the way that ultimately led to the company's entrapment. Making good use of primary sources, especially the letters and memoirs of Virginia Reed, who turned 13 on the journey, the author tells of Virginia's excitement at having her own pony to ride west. However, she doesn't limit the story to Virginia's perspective, but skillfully profiles many members of the party, including Virginia's dynamic father, James, who strongly favored taking an unproven shortcut, and the intelligent and perceptive Tamsen Donner, who was firmly against it. The result is a combination of well-researched factual detail, a gripping narrative, strong characterizations, and a thoughtful analysis of the historical record. (b&w photos, chronology, further reading, bibliography, index) Kirkus Reviews —