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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

4.03  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,707 Ratings  ·  545 Reviews

From the #1 bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat comes an unforgettable epic of family, tragedy, and survival on the American frontier

“An ideal pairing of talent and material.… Engrossing.… A deft and ambitious storyteller.” – Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review

In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Ill

Kindle Edition, 376 pages
Published (first published April 28th 2009)
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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
Jun 21, 2010 Ariela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 23, 2009 Ellen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 01, 2009 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Paul Pessolano
Feb 19, 2011 Paul Pessolano rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
May 26, 2009 Roxanne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 18, 2009 Jeremy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Ori Fienberg
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
Aug 24, 2009 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
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
Feb 21, 2016 Sandie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Mention the Donner Party and most people know the name. They immediately think of the cannibalism that the name has come to represent. But Daniel James Brown thought there was more to the story and set out to give a full account of what happened and how this tragedy occurred.

It was 1846 and promises of land and a wonderful life were being publicized to the American populace. Settlers in many states loaded up wagons and set off in groups to make the long trek to California, usually thousands of m
Shelby *trains flying monkeys*
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.
Mar 06, 2016 Kristal rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 03, 2015 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
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
Jenny Karraker
Oct 09, 2013 Jenny Karraker rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 13, 2011 Marigold rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lana Gerber
Feb 09, 2015 Lana Gerber rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Susannah Carlson
I've read just about everything there is to read about this little slice of history and nothing comes close to this book. Brown weaves in a huge amount of research on the economic, physical, meteorological, psychological, and other factors that converged to cause these emigrants' tragic fate. When people think of the Donner Party, they tend to go straight to the more gruesome aspects of their story, but I think it is more important to remember the genuine heroism, courage, and triumph that many ...more
Apr 27, 2014 Fayette rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.

Leah Angstman
Feb 03, 2016 Leah Angstman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Highly recommended for lovers of pioneer, Expansion, frontier, survival, winter stories
This is one of the most enjoyable (That word sounds awful, given the subject matter--but I guess you'd have to know me.) nonfiction books I have read in a long time. Beautifully researched, handled compassionately and respectfully to both history and to the memories of the humans being discussed, and told in a way that not only details the Donner Party tragedy, but everything around it--the atmosphere, expectations of the time, what the emigrant trails were like, fraudulent shysters, the lives o ...more
Brown wrote this book prior to his best-selling "Boys in the Boat." With his amazing knack for research and detail, it's a harrowing account of the Donner party travails in their trek to California. I couldn't stop listening to the audio version and hated leaving my car while it played. That said, it is agonizing. I cannot fathom why people even tried to go west and how they endured the trips, even without the horrible events that the Donner party encountered. It's a story of true heroism. The j ...more
I read "The Boys in the Boat" last year and listened to it again this year while traveling to the Sierra Nevada Mountains so my husband could also learn the story. Then I thought it was time to find something else written by Brown. I already knew a little about the Donner Party and their troubles in those same mountains so I thought The Indifferent Stars would be a good choice. I was a little disappointed with the writing and lost track of who did what, but feel I should someday drive a few hund ...more
Feb 14, 2016 Stacy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow. Somehow I'd gotten through life having never heard of the Donner party, but now I know quite a bit thanks to this book, and what a sad tale. This book was really well-researched and the story-telling excellent. Some of the parts where the author shares his own experiences at the beginning and end were a little tedious, and at times when he went in-depth into a topic I wished for some brevity, but overall it was well-done and read like fiction. I really wish it was, because it is incredibly ...more
"The frigid black vault of the heavens above them was moonless but ablaze with shimmering stars. The southeast wind that had blown all day continued through the night, making the long, low, mournful sound that only wind in pines can make."

Can a book be both beautiful and horrific at the same time? Brown tells the tale of the Donner party through the perspective of Sarah Graves, a recently-married young woman who is optimistic about her new life and the journey ahead of her. Though I was familiar
Feb 13, 2016 Elizabeth rated it really liked it
This is a tough, grim story to make oneself through, but, I think, an important read. We take the pioneers for granted. Their struggles are distant, but should be brought near for us to better understand our country. I had to set this book aside several times. The story so starkly raw, I simply couldn't face it. There were pages I forced my way through, not because of vile descriptions, but because the sense of hopelessness was more than I could bear.

This author takes incredible research, but t
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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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