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Book Review: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown

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You think you have heard it all before, until you read the account of Sarah Graves and her bold decision to face the uncertain future with her new husband, Jay Fosdick. Imagine yourself at 21 ready with hope and promise for a better life. In 1846, to pack up and prepare to travel overland, mostly walking, takes tremendous stamina and backbone.

The Indifferent Stars Above is about Sarah and the people she will travel with. Author Daniel James Brown crafts with living stimulating accuracy the scenic details of character and setting that makes this an incredible, readable history of the Donner Party saga.

Sarah and her husband have loaded a covered wagon filled with everything they believe they will need. It’s not an easy task as she makes the necessary preparations required for the trip, paring the load down to the essentials. Housewares, furniture, clothes and all the food necessary, force an incredible burden of weight for the ox to pull. They will have to walk most of the way to conserve the strength of the beast.

They are emigrants filled with enthusiasm and a purpose to buy land, build a home and settle the west. They believe their destiny is hopeful, but destiny will fail them. Star-crossed from the beginning they set out and then join up with a group of travelers, known by the leader as the Donner Party. The famous story of the Donner Party is an event famous in American History.

Sarah’s story details the horrific and terrifying journey of physical survival with that ill-fated group. The journey that pushed everyone to their limits of personal endurance. A journey that conjured up ethical actions too sinister to even comprehend.

Unfortunately, a guide by the name of Lansford Hastings posed a shortcut that proved to be anything but. It was virtually impassable and only benefited the greed and the potential profit for Hastings and a business associate. This decision ended up being only one of the many bad luck choices the Donner Party attempted.

The history of the experiences of the Donner Party in the vicious winter of 1846 that dumped record snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada mountains has been told in numerous historical accounts. The author has done extensive research evident from his prodigious, rich bibliography. He credits the first serious account of the Donner Party as written by C. F. McGlashan in 1879 from first person correspondence, called "The History of the Donner Party." The published work will include an eight page black and white insert.

Brown’s account of the event is not just a history of a timeline of events, but a compassionate oral history and deeply moving story of the human element. He explains and backs up medical conditions such as hypothermia and hyperthermia with scientific data and references. His analysis and explanations of why and how specific behavioral and physical changes occur adds keen insight.

In his epilogue he writes an account of the personal journey he mapped and followed to get a feel from a first-hand exploration of the difficulty they faced. He cautions his eyes are from the 21st century perspective with no comparison to the suffering of the Donner Party. Steep climbs and difficult terrain cause him to become breathless. He says, “My God, I thought, those people were tough.”

Another time he is mesmerized by the untouchable beauty of a breathtaking panoramic scene. It is a mirror of what caught Mary Ann Graves' attention as she stopped to gaze on this same distant landscape, an ethereal visual experience that surpassed any suffering for that moment. On some level the spiritual heals the physical, or perhaps suffering becomes a supplicant to the blinding beauty. 

The Indifferent Stars Above is a story of hope and faith. It is the story of chance and risk taking and submission to temptation. It is a story of perseverance and surrender. The Donner Party has come to be synonymous with a group of cannibal survivalists who resorted to despicable atrocities and murder. Details in this account prove otherwise. Brown has humanized a history of the Donner Party unseen before in the voice and compassionate retelling through one of its ordinary survivors who proved to be extraordinary. Brown’s writing is novelistic history, accurate historical non-fiction with readable storytelling.

Brown’s unique style has rich depth as he wraps the context in history like a cocoon of importance around the main event. His contrast between the advances in technology and society in the eastern United States versus the hardship, suffering and pain in the West is an ironic juxtaposition. Brown’s history is as gripping as a suspenseful thriller. A special star above the competition. Highly reccommended.

The Indifferent Stars Above:
The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride
by Daniel James Brown
William Morrow
April 28, 2009Move Into Life
$24.99, HC, 320pp,
320pp

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