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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

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4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  3,616 Ratings  ·  674 Reviews
In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starvin ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 28th 2009 by William Morrow
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Katie Yes. There is very little the author elaborates on without factual evidence, and if you read the forward he talks about adding these pieces based on…moreYes. There is very little the author elaborates on without factual evidence, and if you read the forward he talks about adding these pieces based on his own experiences in the areas. (less)

Community Reviews

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Becky
There are some books that make you want to run outside, open your arms to the sky, and twirl in the cool breeze and sunlight… And there are some books that desperately make you want to stand with your fridge door open, in your heated/air-conditioned house that does not have bugs falling through the roof, with all your curtains shutting out nature, staring at all your processed food, and marveling that you don't have dysentery. I am not sure that I will able to play the Oregon Trail so callously ...more
Ariela
Aug 03, 2009 Ariela rated it it was amazing
It’s not often that a history book will compel me to set all my novels aside, but “The Indifferent Stars Above” certainly did. Within the first few pages I was spellbound. I had to know how Sarah, a young woman newly married to her childhood sweetheart, would end up on top of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the dead of winter, starving and forced to do unspeakable things in order to survive.

“The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride” tells the story of the Donner Par
...more
Jeremy
May 18, 2009 Jeremy rated it really liked it
My wife says that I have an unhealthy fascination with the Donner Party. I don't know whether or not my fascination with that particular immigrant group is unhealthy, but I will admit to the fascination--ever since I first read George Stewart's classic "Ordeal By Hunger" in the 8th grade. The whole story has such a "Perfect Storm" feeling about it. So much went so wrong. How could one group of people have such bad luck? Part of the fascination may have stemmed from having grown up in the Wasatch ...more
Ellen
Jul 20, 2009 Ellen rated it really liked it
Having ancestors who made the trek from Illinois to Oregon at about the same time as the Donner Party, I was especially interested in this book. As a college student, I explored some of the mountains around the Columbia Gorge at different times of the year so I thought I had an appreciation of what the conditions might have been like. After reading this book, I understand how completely I wrong I was. Brown discusses the lack of privacy, personal hygiene, warmth, food, water, shelter and love ag ...more
Laura
Apr 08, 2015 Laura rated it it was ok
I recently read Brown's The Boys in the Boat and on the strength of that book, decided to give this one a try.

Maybe someone more fascinated by or familiar with the Donner party would be able to follow this, but it felt overloaded with information. I wish it had simply focused on Sarah Graves. Instead, there was such an array of people involved, it was near impossible to keep track of them all. I wouldn't say it was poorly written; just not the book for me.
Paul Pessolano
Feb 19, 2011 Paul Pessolano rated it it was amazing
This book is a historical account of the Donner Party. I have to admit that I have been fascinated by the Donner Party since I was in high school. It is a harrowing account of families trying to get to California in 1846.

This account is a little different in that it does not focus on the Donners, but another family that was traveling in the party. Franklin and Elizabeth Graves, their married daughter Sarah, her husband, and their eight children left Illinois on their fateful journey. The story r
...more
Roxanne
May 24, 2009 Roxanne rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who liked good historical non-fiction
Recommended to Roxanne by: New York Book Review
This is one of the best books of the year. How can I describe this book? I really wasn't looking forward to it, but the New York Book Review gave it flying colors so I figured I would give it a try. I have read it in 3 days - and I have really develped a bad habit of quitting a book if I have read 100 or so pages and it's just not going anywhere or it's too much like all the others. But this is one original, honest, ingenious novels I have really ever read in this genre. The writer applies conte ...more
Robert
Jun 04, 2009 Robert rated it really liked it
This is the harrowing story of The Donner Party's trek westward in 1846 that ends in tragedy as it gets caught-up in a wave of snow storms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The books details their incredible suffering during this time, including cannibalism. The courage of the stranded and starving people is unbelievable, but true. Daniel James Brown does a great job telling the story of the group's 1500 mile plus journey to California. A feature of the book I really found interesting is Brown's m ...more
Toni Miranda
Apr 15, 2015 Toni Miranda rated it liked it
Having read the Hiding Place I saw the stark difference two groups of people can have to the same tragic circumstances. Corrie and her sister faced starvation and turned to God. The Donners and others turned to killing and cannibalism. The author cites studies that supposedly prove that people will always become carnal and devilish in these situations, but I have heard and read enough to know that is not true. I do believe that without strong faith, people can and often do resort to evil in orde ...more
Shelby *trains flying monkeys*
Sep 16, 2010 Shelby *trains flying monkeys* rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2010
The amount of research done for this book takes you right to the time period that the saga occured. For me this book wasn't just about the Donner tragedy but about life in general. Great book.
Ori Fienberg
Sep 07, 2011 Ori Fienberg rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfictionista
Do you remember playing Oregon Trail in middle school? God, I loved that game. You earned some outrageous score for completing it as a school teacher, but I think I only managed that a couple times. Beating it as a banker was a foregone conclusion. You just bought extras of everything wagon related, lots of ammo, and made your party the maximum size. Sure, Mary-Ann, Todd, and Uncle Biff were almost certain to get lost, come down with malaria, or get bit by a snake, but if you had enough people i ...more
Marcee
I didn't expect to like this book, but it was what my book group was doing when I was first invited to join. I thought it would just be ghastly and gruesome with the tales of cannibalism, but instead it was more about telling a story of the journey from beginning to end. I also expected a novel, but found instead a history with some overlay of imagined dialogue and feelings developed by the author after extensive research and physically traveling over the land the party covered, mostly in the sa ...more
Jessica
Aug 23, 2009 Jessica rated it really liked it
Shelves: geography, nonfiction
Okay, I don't think I need to read anything else about the Donner Party! The book is thorough and you learn a lot not only about this ill-fated expedition but about frontier life in the 1840's, psychological and physiological stress, effects of hunger, etc. Brown is a thorough researcher but strains too hard (for me) in trying to imagine the mind of the recently-married Sarah Graves, whose family is also on the expedition. There are a good number of families, characters, encampments to follow--m ...more
Ginger
Jan 13, 2016 Ginger rated it liked it
3.5 stars. This is not a feel good, go American underdogs, story like Boys in the Boat. This is more of a train wreck you can't look away from, American horror, story.
I knew very little about the Donner party and now know more than I ever wanted to know. (Why did I think this would be less gory???)
What I really found fascinating and appreciated about the book was all I learned about the life and trials of the pioneers: the lice, the lack of water, the dust... I would have to be of stronger stu
...more
Marigold
Feb 13, 2011 Marigold rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Finally, a really great read! First one I’ve had for a few months—and it’s non-fiction! I saw Brown speak at Powell’s a while back – 2009? (Thanks, Jessica!) I’ve been interested in reading the book ever since, & I highly recommend it. Brown brings history to life in this book about the Donner Party, a group of 87 individuals who set out from the mid-west to California in 1846, and spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. As starvation and cold took over their mi ...more
Danna
What was it like to be a pioneer seeking a better life in 1846? Read The Indifferent Stars Above to find out. It is the numbingly painful tale of families moving west and the horrors of the road.

I don't know how many of you played the computer game Oregon Trail, but it was all the rage when I was in elementary school. You'd pick your family members, head off with a wagon, a number of oxen, yokes, supplies, etc. Then, you'd head off on the Oregon Trail, praying for balmy conditions as you travel
...more
Carol
Jun 20, 2014 Carol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a hard one to rate. How can you like a story that is so unbelievably horrific? The author obviously did a great amount of research and overall, I was continually engaged in the book, although he often tangents into other historical facts of the time and place. Those breaks in the storyline were actually a welcome relief to the relentless account of cold and death of the Donner Party. I learned a lot and this book prompted me to look up more information when I finished, which is always th ...more
Jenny Karraker
Oct 09, 2013 Jenny Karraker rated it it was amazing
When we go to restaurants, my children will often give our name as Donner and then laugh when the Donner party is called (though sadly, most of the time the hostesses don't recognize the name). After reading this book, I don't think I'll do that any more. This story seems much too tragic to make light of it nowadays. Being told from the point of view of the new bride Sarah and her husband Jay gives it an extra realism as you think about their dreams and aspirations for a new life together. It wa ...more
Kristal
Jan 23, 2016 Kristal rated it really liked it
Wow, this one is a hard one to rate. I didn't know a whole lot about the Donner party, just the cannibalism part mostly. The book was very informative, but I felt like I saw a little bias from the author early on in the story, so I spent the rest of the time wondering what else was skewed from his interpretations, but this wasn't a major issue. It read really well, without too much extra fluff and sensationalism.

My husband and I often drive I-80 from Utah to California, and we have spent a bit
...more
Betsy
Nov 26, 2016 Betsy rated it really liked it
Brown tells the story of the Donner party through the eyes and life of Sarah Graves, a newlywed who joined her family on the trek west. I knew only the most basic facts about the Donner party before picking this up--people stuck in the pass in California, some cannibalism--and I was strangely engrossed by the story. It was surreal to be reading it on Thanksgiving, as I celebrated plenty with my family not far from where the Donner party hacked their way through tough brush in northern Utah befor ...more
Joyce
I confess I've long had a morbid fascination with the Donner Party, caught in early snows in the California mountains in 1846 and driven to cannibalism to survive. How could it happen? This is not a detailed recreation of those events, rather it's an intriguing history and the author's quest to discover the fate of Sarah Graves, on this trek westward with her new husband and her family. So it's biographical, true adventure, history, as well as a social history, since Brown successfully places us ...more
Lana Gerber
Feb 07, 2015 Lana Gerber rated it it was amazing
Although the subject of this book is very sad and sometimes painful to read, it is exceedingly well researched. In particular I enjoyed the research that attempts to give the reader an accurate feel for the experience of crossing the west as a pioneer. Particularly I enjoyed information on food, clothing, women's responsibilities, childbirth, and probable interactions between men and women. Very interesting. One area that I wish had been addressed: There were many babies and toddlers. What did t ...more
Socraticgadfly
Nov 28, 2012 Socraticgadfly rated it it was amazing
Obviously, there is only so much evidence of both the horrors of Donner Pass, and her later-life attempt to live beyond that, that Sarah Graves left us. And, even less of her childhood back in Illinois.

But, Daniel James Brown does a good job of stringing this all together into a coherent whole, to present how the trek to California, and the nightmare in the Sierra, probably looked from her eyes.

He also does a good job at looking at things like PTSD, survival psychology and more. Excellent read.,
...more
Stephanie (That's What She Read)
Pop Sugar Challenge: Read a book with a subtitle

Before reading this I knew what I guess most people know about the Donner Party. The author focuses on one member of the group, but manages to humanize almost of the people there. He outlined the unfortunate decisions that led to them to their tragic fates, as well as the physical effects of what they must have experienced. It's hard to imagine what these people went through, especially now as the mother of a young child, in hopes of a better life.
...more
Fayette
Apr 16, 2014 Fayette rated it really liked it
Wow! I did not know the story of the Donner party and whenever I mentioned to someone that I was reading about it they would say, "oh no! It's really gruesome!"

Well, (spoiler) they were right. But I felt this book was well written and very carefully researched. It you ever thought the idea of pioneering was romantic, you probably should read this book. That'll set you straight.

cameron
Feb 27, 2017 cameron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If all American history had been written this way I would have loved it as much as I love European history. Amazing read: Don't miss it.
Cathy
I gave this book three stars because -- well, I find the story of the Donner Party fascinating. That is still true; however, I selected this particular book because I really, really liked The Boys in the Boat so when I saw this title about the Donner Party, by the same author, I thought, Whoa! Win, win! This book was not nearly as engaging as the Boys. It was INTERESTING, because of the topic, but the writing was nowhere near the caliber that I remember from the Boys. And it was, at least in pa ...more
Shelley
Feb 20, 2017 Shelley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I couldn't help thinking as I read that this book is like "Little House on the Prairie" for grownups. In some ways. Ok, yes, that sounds nuts, but let me explain. The Little House books focused on Laura's wonder at the world and in little things around her, but you could also see the hardships of her life -- told in a gentle way. They showed tough times, certainly, but never got too nitty gritty. They softened the edges of that life to make the story suitable for children.

"The Indifferent Stars
...more
Ashley
Feb 04, 2017 Ashley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a tough group of people!!!

The author did an amazing job of making you feel as though you were traveling the emigrant trail right alongside the Donner party. I learned so much from this book, an emotionally difficult read but very well written!
Katie Ziegler (Life Between Words)
Definitely not for the weak stomach, or faint of heart. This was indeed a disturbing, heart-wrenching and harrowing account of the Donner Party; but if you played Oregon Trail as a child and have a tendency toward morbid curiosity then this is the book for you.

Some time ago after graduating from grad school my mom flew out to California and we drove back to Wisconsin together. We didn't take the fastest route, instead we drove up from LA into wine country and then through Sacramento and through
...more
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Daniel James Brown fell in love with the written word when he was five and his mother first read Danny and the Dinosaur to him. Since then he has earned a BA in English from the University of California at Berkeley and an MA in English from UCLA. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford University and now lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, where he writes nonf ...more
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“They emblazoned the cotton with the words “California Republic.” Above that they drew a star and what they intended to be the figure of a grizzly bear. Then they ran the flag up the pole. The Mexican Californians who had gathered around, suddenly foreigners in their own land, looked up, pondered it silently, and wondered why the Americans had chosen a pig as the symbol of their ascension to power. The” 1 likes
“Aghast at their predicament, Parrado fell to his knees in the snow and took in a staggering realization. Death was the rule, life the exception. Life was at best a transitory dream, set in a universe that was entirely indifferent to his fate. Whether to cling to that fragile dream, Parrado realized then and there, was up to him as it is up to all of us, moment by moment. Whether to embrace what we are all thrust into, squealing with astonishment and rage, or to fall back into the comfortable, dark, quiet realm of the insentient. Nando Parrado decided to fight for the dream. Charles Stanton, it appears, after all his heroic efforts to aid his fellow travelers, had chosen to slip back into the darkness.” 1 likes
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