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Ordeal by Hunger: the Story of the Donner Party
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Ordeal by Hunger: the Story of the Donner Party

4.05 of 5 stars 4.05  ·  rating details  ·  864 ratings  ·  104 reviews
The tragedy of the Donner party constitutes one of the most amazing stories of the American West. In 1846 eighty-seven people -- men, women, and children -- set out for California, persuaded to attempt a new overland route. After struggling across the desert, losing many oxen, and nearly dying of thirst, they reached the very summit of the Sierras, only to be trapped by bl ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published January 30th 1992 by Mariner Books (first published 1936)
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Community Reviews

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Mike
Ordeal by Hunger: George R. Stewart's Story of the Donner Party

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The Donner Party Monument, Truckee, California State Park

I happened to be in Reno, Nevada, in late March, 2012. It was strictly business, assisting a family with whom I have had a significant bond for many years. Casinos have no allure for me. However historical sites have drawn me to them like a magnet since childhood. I owe that to my grandfather with whom I would travel during summers on his business trips. As the rest of my fami
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Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
Gripping account of the Donner Party's struggle to survive during the winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevada mountains, by an author who interviewed that last living survivors of the party. I couldn't believe what they suffered before they even got to Donner Pass, much less afterward. I read the book all in one sitting-- just couldn't put it down. Incredible! Highly recommended!
Julia
This book absolutely blew me away. I had heard of the Donner Party and knew something of their fate, but nothing can prepare you for their full story.
Susan
We just don’t know how good we have it today! I can’t even image traveling across country to California in a wagon, with all my worldly possessions and leaving loved ones behind. But that is what thousands of pioneers did to build our cities and towns. This is the story of one tragic crossing in 1846. The Donner party consisted of 87 people and was getting a late start in the season. They were duped by trail leader who claimed he knew a way that would take 350 miles off the trip and save them ma ...more
Mark Johnson
This is a thorough and very well written account of the Donner expedition. One of my favorite aspects is the writing style in vogue back in 1936 when it was first written. For instance, the book opens with this passage: "To observe the scene of this story the reader must for a moment imagine himself taken backward many years in time and raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada. Poised there at an aery point of vantage, facing toward the north and ...more
Bobbi
I've never read anything by George Stewart before and discovered him by way of Wallace Stegner's "Big Rock Candy Mountain". This was truly a page turner and well written. It was written in 1936 so was probably the first book about that incident. He seems to have done a lot of research; quite a few of the people had left journals and of course about half of them survived. He mentions that one of the survivors was still alive at the time of his writing but he/she must have been pretty old as the o ...more
Jenni Wiltz
I read this book faster than any work of fiction I've read in the past year. Stewart tells the tale well, generating suspense despite the fact that most of us know how this one turns out. The story is so gripping that I couldn't put it down. Stewart describes the terrain with an expert eye because he performed excavations in the area while researching the book. I appreciated the fact that he told this more as a narrative than an analysis--no blame for the bad decisions that led to this tragedy, ...more
Tom Phillips
This is one version of the Donner Party story. The writing, or the book itself may not be deserving of 5 stars, although it is well done and eminently readable. However, the historical story itself is one of the most heartbreaking and tragic in the American psyche. How could so much go so wrong for these people? If, when you think of the Donner Party, you only think cannibalism you are missing most of the story. How it got to that is the real story and how it all turned out. It is a story of the ...more
Rebecca
Such a sad story. I am amazed after listening to this the resilience our bodies have. The things that these people survived and lived thru amazes me. The will to live is definitely strong in some people. It is also sad to see the true nature of some people. I am glad to know the story behind the Donner party, all I have ever heard is Cannibalism, but this story is so much more than cannibalism, it is about the courage it takes for face trials, and about the will to live, and unselfishness to hel ...more
Dan
Great read. As technology approaches the point where you will probably be able to order drone delivered Taco Bell anywhere on the planet with your phone it's astonishing to read such a story. Most of us first world dwellers, rich poor and all in between don't know what hardship really is. This book made me realize how much we take for granted.

On the other hand this book also made me realize how, even at that time, we often bring hardship on ourselves FOR NO GOOD REASON!!! Most of (if not all) m
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Paula
This was a tough book to get through. It was interesting, but a lot of the same: they were starving, freezing, destitute. The author did a remarkable job with the material he had to work with. He does not take artistic license by padding the stories with fictional dialogue or drama; he pieces together the story splinter by splinter from the diaries and letters of the party members and the other historical resources available from the time.

Interesting to see that, contrary to what one might assu
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Gerald Curtis
I’m really glad I read this detailed historical account, because I found out I had a lot of ignorant, naïve conceptions. For example, I had assumed the gist of their story and difficulties were when they got snowed in before they could make the pass to California. But I found out they had many life-threatening difficulties along the way, which were so serious that they almost didn’t even make it to the mountains where they became the famous “Donner Party.”

I also assumed that they and their trag
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Jenny
I read this for a book club. I wasn't excited about it, and it wasn't the normal more fun books I normally like to read, but I did find it very interesting and informative. Even though I knew what happened, I still was sad at all of the hardships they experienced and rooted for them to triumph. A still shocking look at the horrific desperation of long term starvation and it's effects.

Some react to the hardships with humility, selflessness and heroism. Others became bitter, heartlessly self-serv
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David
This history of the Donner Party was first published in 1936, then updated and republished in 1960. The basics of the story of this group of Illinois settlers bound for California are known to most - they got stuck in a storm in the Sierras and eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive. But there is much more to the story, and it's told well in this book.

I particularly enjoyed the description of the party's passage from Wyoming down through the Wasatch mountains into Salt Lake valley in 1846
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Suzanna
This book was fascinating. I was not familiar with the Donner Party's ordeal until I heard some snippets from this book on NPR a few times (mostly from the very early part of their travels). I found a copy at the local library and could hardly put it down once I started.

The story of the Donners and those who travelled with them on that fated journey is absolutely amazing. It seemed every paragraph found new, terrible challenges these people faced. The author does a decent job of balancing the de
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Linds
I read this book for two reasons -
1.) I grew up in northern California and we would drive through Donner's Pass from time to time.
2.) I've been into true survival stories lately, most notably 127 Hours and the 1972 Uruguayan plane crash.

It's almost hard to believe what they went through, even before getting trapped in the mountains. They got lost, had to carve their own trail, got lost, attacked by Indians, and almost died of thirst on the Salt Lake flats. That's before they got trapped in the
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Theresa
I picked up a used copy of this book on a whim, because I was tired of reading fiction and have an affinity for adventure/survival biographies. Ordeal by Hunter did not disappoint. In it, Steward provides a meticulously researched, historically accurate account of the plight of the 87 pioneers who set out for California from Illinois in the spring of 1846, and follows them as they make a series of unfortunate route choices while crossing from Wyoming to California. They traveled an essentially u ...more
Cindy
I first heard of this book while visiting Lake Tahoe and hearing it mentioned as a Book Club read for a group of Mormon woman. Then on our way home we stopped by the Donner Memorial State Park. There is a statue that showed how high the snow was that winter, over 25 feet. I looked about on that summer day and tried to envision what that would be like. But was unable. I knew I wanted learn more about this experience, so decided to find the book. The book at times is hard to go through because of ...more
E
An excellent addition to a Californiana library. Stewart's book is well researched, timeless, and captivating. He strays away from finger pointing and instead approaches the persons who were involved in this tragic incident with subtlety and compassion. There are so many poignant moments in this book, but I won't give any spoilers. If you are interested in reading about this tragic time in California history, you will not be disappointed in this selection.
Cindy
In Desperate Passage, I felt like I was reading a story with well developed characters, a story in which I desperately hoped the ending was different, in which history could somehow change. In Ordeal by Hunger, though filled with even more detail and reprinted primary sources at the end of the book, the people and journey felt a little more dry. Both works are enlightening and engaging but in different ways. Heartbreaking story!
Phylwil
Grueling and so full of details I had some trouble keeping up with the attempts to walk in or out of the starving mountain encampment and who was currently taking care of which child. The tale describes depths of human depravity but should also be remembered for the stunning acts of heroism and monumental, unwavering struggle. I personally appreciate the inclusion of the historic sources used. Survivors' diaries and letters are attached if you want to revisit the story as told by those who exper ...more
Kathrina
Stewart's writing style is a bit romantic here, but such an awesome adventure. Contemporary Donner Party historians have blamed Stewart and other older researchers for painting the good guys vs bad guys a bit too black and white, but it's obvious that some participants really did show their true colors in the face of adversity. Did Keseberg really prefer the taste of human flesh, even when oxen meat became available after the thaw? Who knows, but it makes a dramatic story. And Stewart has certai ...more
Maxanna Lucas
Don and I listened to the audio book as we traveled about. The book was very engaging and informative. The thoroughness and honesty in the description of this terrifying ordeal certainly changed my superficial -and judgemental - attitude towards tale. Though originally written in 1936 and then updated in 1960 the scholarship of the work is impressive.
David
This is the factual account of the ill-fated party of immigrants that in 1847 became stranded in the Sierra-Nevada mountains. They are mostly remember because some of them resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. I think everyone should read this book because we could all end up in the same predicament where we have to eat human flesh to stay alive.
Angelica
This book was riveting. Perhaps it's because I bought it at Wall Drug on a cross country trip. I don't remember why I picked it up. I wasn't expecting much and I was fascinated from the very start. I've since learned much of the Donner Party story is legend, but this book is still a fascinating nonetheless.
Jackie
Apr 26, 2014 Jackie added it
What an experience! It makes me ponder about how I would respond in similar circumstances. There is a Donner Memorial State Park that includes all sorts of recreational activities and houses, an Emigrant Trail Museum exhibit and video located in Nevada. I’d like to go someday.
Katie
Excellent recount of the Donner Party. I had heard what most people probably know: the cannibalism aspect. I was not at all prepared for the deep tragedy this piece of history had in store.

The book is very well written and I feel the author did a great job remaining impartial and helping me try to keep track of everyone who was on this expedition.

It was a long read for me, I think mostly because each page has so much information to process.
Judi
I couldn't put this book down. It was one of the most powerful I have ever read and almost unbelievable. The experience of the Donner Party is one that is impossible for most of us to imagine. There were passages that brought tears to my eyes.

This book will leave you paralyzed with wonder and with horror. The Donner Party saga may be one of the greatest stories of all time that is both triumphant and terrible.

The Donner Party was a group of 87 American pioneers who set out in a wagon train heade
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Gillian Burles
A very compelling read. We all know the rough outline but this book details the amazing story. Not just the horrendous (which is page turning) but the heroic efforts of some of the relief efforts. An amazing book and worth your time
Dan
One of the Silicon Valley's urtexts.

Head west to find your destiny, run into adversity and misfortune, find your fate determined by the charity and character of strangers.

Required reading to call yourself a Californian.
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George Rippey Stewart was an American toponymist, a novelist, and a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for his only science fiction novel Earth Abides (1949), a post-apocalyptic novel, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was dramatized on radio's Escape and inspired Stephen King's The Stand .

His 1941 novel Storm , featu
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More about George R. Stewart...
Earth Abides Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States Pickett's Charge Storm Fire

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