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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

4.02  ·  Rating Details ·  1,949 Ratings  ·  243 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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Mar 01, 2012 Chrissie rated it really liked it
Recommended to Chrissie by: Lynne
Shelves: bio, usa, bad-trip, audible
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
Dec 19, 2013 Sabrina Resendiz rated it really liked it
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
Jun 30, 2010 Deirdre rated it it was amazing
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
May 31, 2014 Mimi Vo rated it really liked it
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
Mar 12, 2013 Colleen rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 05, 2012 Cindy rated it it was amazing
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
Damon Lively
Mar 04, 2016 Damon Lively rated it it was amazing
Fantastic and captivating book. For a stab in the dark at picking a book to analyze and explain in detail the Donner Party tragedy - I could not have asked for much more. This book is a page turner and is written in a manner that makes it difficult to put down. With each page I was mesmerized by parts of this story I had not realized before, the scope of human endurance and ability (fight) to survive, and to another extent the heartfelt sickness at poor decisions that lead to loss of innocent li ...more
Aug 08, 2016 Carolyn rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Desperate Passage was better than I expected. This was really engaging, not dull or plodding in its pacing, and, at times, even moving, emotionally rich, and well-written. I'm not a good gauge on public interest in history books; as a history major I probably like history books more than most people, so I can't say that anyone would like this or that it's a good choice for someone delving into books on American settler history for the first time. However, if you're already interested in the Donn ...more
Kelsey Hanson
Oct 26, 2016 Kelsey Hanson rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book provides a more in-depth look at the Donner Party and all that the settlers had to go through. Before reading this book, my knowledge of the Donner Party was basically that they were a group of settlers who after a series of poor choices wound up stuck in the winter and had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. While that is an accurate summary, it's hardly the whole story. This book offers some insight about why they made the choices they made and how they survived. The most i ...more
May 31, 2013 Linda rated it really liked it
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
Apr 23, 2009 J.M. rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
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
Apr 28, 2011 Krysten rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Dec 04, 2015 Irene rated it it was amazing
This is a work of non fiction, and I would recommend it whether you already know the gist of what happened to these people or whether you only think you know, Whether you have heard very little about it other than cannibalism was involved, or whether you have watched documentaries on the subject this is by far the best and most detailed account of events that I have come across. The Donner/Reed Party is an important part of American history. “Of the eighty-one people who had been trapped by the ...more
Jun 05, 2012 Paula rated it it was amazing
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
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
Dec 09, 2012 Heather(Gibby) rated it really liked it
Shelves: src-winter-2016
I have owned this book for a really long time, and finally got around to reading it.

It is a non-fiction account of the Donner Party's journey west to California in 1846, and the winter spent on the eastern side of the mountains as they did not make the mountain pass before the first major snow fall. It is a testament to what humans are capable of doing to survive when they have no other options.

the book appears to be based on sound research, and not fabricated fillins, like some non-fiction bo
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
Dec 07, 2015 Marcus rated it it was amazing
Listening to the narrated version of this book was a great experience. The narration was top notch and the story itself was engrossing not merely due to the subject matter. The author clearly did his homework and I appreciate the segments informing listeners/readers about the cultural backdrop in which the events of the Donnor party's journey took place.
May 21, 2010 Heather rated it it was amazing
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!
June Gillam
Dec 07, 2015 June Gillam rated it it was amazing
Astonishing details of a tragic crossing over the Sierras. This book helped me with my research for House of Eire, in which cannibalism will figure as part of the villain's motivation. To be released in summer of 2016.
Sarah Risner Gilpin
Jan 06, 2009 Sarah Risner Gilpin rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 27, 2009 Bridget rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2008
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.
Mar 17, 2009 Jennifer rated it really liked 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.
Gena Smith
May 16, 2016 Gena Smith rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
Fascinating. Revolting. Inspiring.
Dawn Brady
Jan 09, 2010 Dawn Brady rated it it was amazing
If you love history, then you would love this book! Doesnt harp on the horror of their situation, but looks deeper into it.....
Nov 21, 2009 Kristel rated it it was amazing
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
Jess B
Jan 29, 2017 Jess B rated it it was amazing
Generally I reserve five star ratings for books that were so amazing I would read them again. I may not read this again but the narrative style makes it less like a history lesson and more just a story about a group of unfortunate people who fell on extremely hard times. A valuable piece of history that I'm glad I read and would recommend to others.
Ted Haussman
Feb 21, 2017 Ted Haussman rated it it was amazing

This has to be the definitive account of the Donner Party tragedy. Part fascinating and every part horrifying, I really enjoyed this book as it put the whole journey and travails in historical perspective.
Vivian Mills
Nov 09, 2016 Vivian Mills rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting and insightful

This is a story of survival and the road not taken. It clarifies how the tragedy was the result of numerous bad decisions along the way and how the immigrants dealt with the ultimate outcome. It could have been avoided.
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“On a journey into the unknown, perfect progress is perfectly impossible.” 1 likes
“They could neither go back nor remain in place. Like their wagons, they had no brakes, no way of stopping the high-stakes journey on which they had wagered their lives and fortunes.” 1 likes
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