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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West
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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  1,530 ratings  ·  212 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 1st 2008 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published February 4th 2007)
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Jun 05, 2012 Chrissie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Chrissie by: Lynne
Shelves: audible, bad-trip, bio, usa
An excellent reportage of the travail of this doomed trek. All the where, when, who, why and how questions are, if not definitively answered, thoroughly analyzed. Some questions still today cannot be conclusively answered. Over the years opposing views have been voiced. Who were the real heroes, who the villains and who the cowards? Why did this expedition go so tragically wrong? The push westward to Oregon and California over the plains and the mountains during the years of the 1840s-1860s, a 2 ...more
Sabrina Resendiz
Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage, tells us, with much detail and historical evidence, the story of the Donner Party, a large group of families including the Donner and Reed families who take upon the perilous journey to have a better life. This book is set America, late 1840s, when many families sought to travel to the recently acquired land of California. Traveling West for a better shot at life is not easy for the Donner Party since the land hasn't been thoroughly explored and the Natives with ...more
An interesting and well researched book on the Donner Party. I guess my only qualm with the Donner Party is that these people were duped by a man who claimed going through Utah (through the Salt Lake) and then heading through a thin pass over the Sierras would get them to California quicker. They lost so much marching through the vast salt lake desert that by the time they reached the Sierra Mountain "pass" they had virtually nothing left. I don't really know what I would have done given that si ...more
When we think about the Donner Party, most of us think about just one thing -- the horrible tragedy that resulted in cannibalism. In this beautifully written, and quite emotionally engaging account, so much more is revealed -- the range of personalities involved in this story, the complex motives that propelled them forward, the role of fate and the difference a single action or decision might make. The Donner Party episode is also so much more complex than I imagined -- we think today that if w ...more
Mimi Vo
This book takes us back to 1846, a time where there were no such things as smart phones and automobiles. It tells us about a group of nearly 90 emigrants who attempt to make a long journey westward to California with the hopes of acquiring a better future and easier living. This group, known as the Donner Party consisted of men, women, and many children. At this time, many Americans were traveling westward with the intentions of fulfilling their "Manifest Destiny" which is the philosophy that Am ...more
Just about everyone has heard of the Donner Party, the ill-fated wagon train that got trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in October 1846, and the fact that many of the survivors had to resort to cannibalism in order live long enough to be rescued. However, their story is so much more than just their gruesome method of survival, and this book covers it all.

The author does, of course, discuss the cannibalism that was necessary for survival, but he does so without any sensationalism or gory det
After driving over Donnor Pass on my way to California, I was curious about the Donnor Party, what really happened? I had read a book in high school about it, but forgot most of the facts.
Searching on my nook later at the hotel, I came across Desperate Passage.
I really like the way Ethan Rarick researched the whole story, the book starts at the beginning of the Donnor Party journey and tells the whole story. Many things lead to the end result, delays, poor advice followed, pride and lack of know
This is one of the best books I've ever read!

I couldn't put it down. It truly brought history to life. And I found a couple of wonderful heroes to look up to.

The first half of the book takes you into the lives of people on the westward trail. You learn about individuals who were drawn to take their families to a new land out west. Then you see what life was like upon the wagon trail and the decisions they had to make along the way. It's a very engaging account.

I found myself wondering how *I* wo
Good, quick, easy read about the tragedy of the Donner Party and I guess more accurate than previous books on the topic, though it seems less detailed (and much shorter) than other books on the topic. I still prefer Stewart's Ordeal By Hunger-- it really did a better job of giving the reader a full understanding of the severe trials the emigrants faced not only at their winter at the lake, but almost from Day 1 of the trip (the horrific crossing of the Great Salt Lake desert, for instance). Desp ...more
A fairly light read for such a horrifying topic.

This may be overly picky of me, but I hate it when nonfiction books get into "reasonable speculation" (as the author of this book calls it in the Author's Note). This book has a lot of relevant but unimportant speculative "details" about, for example, how a certain person loved riding horses and feeling the wind whip through her hair. Unless there's something from a primary source to back up that sort of detail, I really don't care.

At any rate, th
When I started this, I wasn't sure what to expect. My knowledge of the Donner Party tragedy was mostly based on heresay and a horribly morbid movie called "Cannibal: The Musical."

I thought this was an excellent introduction to the events that unfolded in the winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Much more emphasis is placed on the journey itself and the people in the party than on the atrocious events that occurred that winter. While the subject matter isn't for the squeamish, this book
Jenny Maloney
A good introduction to the Donner party tragedy -- but it seems like some sections are sped through because there's a lack of detail. This book reads more like a summation of the other books that have come before it: McGlashan, Stewart, Hill, etc. There aren't any real new insights or POVs added.

But if you've never read anything about the Donner party, this is a good place to start. It covers all of the general bases and does have a few additional pieces of information regarding our current und
While I have read other books on this subject, they all seemed to focus on the obvious desperate acts the Donner Party is known for. This book took the journey from the beginning, detailing finely the members of the party, as well as the journey, and the uninformed men who led them to their desperate ends. Nowhere have I seen such detail as here. One gets to know all the families involved, person by person, child by child, wagon by wagon. The reader understands why they did what they felt they h ...more
This proved to be quite a lively, detailed and sympathetic but honest account of the entire journey west of what came to be infamously known as The Donner Party. Granted, before reading this I had only been exposed to the sketchiest of details regarding the Donner Party, so I can't truly attest to its accuracy, but given the documents and sources he cites throughout the book, I think it's definitely safe to say the author did his research! At times it became a little difficult to keep track of a ...more
Lisa Hunt
Came across this while visiting Yellowstone. It looked interesting and I really only knew the very basics about the Donner Party (pretty much that they were stuck and ate people). The book was great in that it was very easy to read, it flowed very well, it read more like a novel. That also is kind of the knock against it, too. Reading the footnotes it is clear that the author surmised quite a lot in the interest of making it readable. For example, it might say something like "Their mother looked ...more
Jonathan Card
Fantastic book about one of the most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams must often confront.

The Donner Party. 1840's expansion west. A huge cavalcade leaves Independence, MO for the good life in California. Everything is going ok until, George Donner, the leader of the group makes a fateful decision to go off on a splinter group and leave the main party. He has read a guidebook that tells of a shortcut and will shave two weeks of the journ
This well written book seemed to be well researched as well. I finished it, realizing that that we will never know everything about this harrowing incident because of a mixture of truth and misinformation spread about this event afterward. What's even amazing to think about is how some of these survivors went on to lead relatively normal lives afterward. What would I have done? Would I have survived?
Going into it I wasn't excited and prepared myself for being bored. The first few pages were rather rough on me, due to my attitude towards the experience I began to think I was going to have. Though, getting further and further into it I just couldn't put it down. Ethan Rarick told an exciting journey that was mostly factual. The holes between each traveler's diary entries were filled in with events that were perhaps the true thing. Nothing was farfetched or ridiculous. Each family was carefull ...more
This book was amazing! It really was able to capture the mood of the time and also the trip of the Donners. As soon as I HAD to put the book down I couldn't wait to pick it back up. The author was able to pick me up out of my living room and drop me into the 1840's during the time of westward expansion!
The best book I've ever read about the Donner Party - and believe me, I've read a few. The story of the ill-fated wagon train is already gripping, and this book manages to tell it without being sensational or lurid. There is so much more going on here than (alleged) cannibalism.
Sarah Risner Gilpin
This book is so informative and interesting about the Donner party. It's a book that is hard to put down and it tell so much history and what all these people went through from beginning to end. If you are interested in stuff like this I would defiantly recommend it.
The unimaginable retelling of the journey from Missouri to California in 1846. Mr. Rarick introduces us to the members of the Donner party, making the pilgrims as real as we are. I won't complain of being cold again.
Robert Jones
Desperate Passage feels like some fanfiction of a failed Oregon Trail game at first, then takes a much, much darker turn about halfway through. Rarick strips all mythology from the Donner Party and exposes the well-researched, horrifying truth of the nearly eighty people stranded in the mountains of northern California. There's a little less cannibalism than I expected (though "less cannibalism" does still involve eating friends and family, I guess); most of the suffering comes from the families ...more
Dawn Brady
If you love history, then you would love this book! Doesnt harp on the horror of their situation, but looks deeper into it.....
While visiting the Emigrant Museum, site of one of the Donner Party's cabins, near Lake Tahoe I picked up this book. I, of course, had heard about the tragedy of the Donner Party, but this book provided so much more background on their entire journey, ill-fated almost from the start. Fascinating reading about these early pioneers and their willingness to undertake a 2,000 mile walk to a try to find a better life. There was so much they did not know about the trail and a number of bad decisions l ...more
I didn't have to be scared to read this!

I was hesitant to read this book even though I know the history of the Donner Party, simply because I was worried it would be a grisly retelling of the horrors they experienced while trapped in the Sierras. While the book does detail the experiences of the group, including the desperate measures they had to take in order to survive, I found it to be thoughtfully narrated and considerate of both the reader and the people whose stories it told.
Kilian Metcalf
The Donner party had to work hard to create the situation that culminated in their frozen isolation in the Sierra Nevada mountains during one of the worst winters ever to hit the region. There were several decision points along the journey that offered options that would have resulted in a successful conclusion. Instead, at every fork, they chose the option that would lead to the disaster that overtook them. I'm not sure what the lesson is to be drawn from this other than to take the advice writ ...more
Jenn Raley
I was quite impressed with this book. The story starts at the beginning of the westward journey, describing in great detail the conditions of the trip across the American west from Missouri and onwards. Well-documented are each fateful decision made by the Donner Party that slowed down their journey and led to their entrapment in an early winter storm in the high Sierras. This takes the reader halfway through the book, and then the narrative slows down to describe the tenacious escape attempts a ...more
On route to California stranded in the deep, freezing blanket of snow, following bits and pieces of a rumored short cut, with few supplies, ill-equipped, and uneducated on how to survive the rugged winter wilderness of the West; No rescue in sight while watching family members, children, and husbands die each day from fatigue and hunger. While stuck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this is the predicament of the Donner Party toward the later part of their crisis during the winter months of 1846. ...more
I first learned the history of the Donner Party when, as a little girl, my family took a summer road trip through the Sierras over Donner Pass and stopped at the Monument site. I’ve always felt a sense of awe and reverence standing in a spot upon which, in an earlier era of history, a great triumph, sacrifice, or tragedy occurred. Perhaps that childhood exploration of the Donner Monument and surrounding environs served as a catalyst for planting in my consciousness an awareness of the concept of ...more
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