Tony's Reviews > The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown
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Oct 18, 11

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Read in October, 2011

THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride. (2009). Daniel James Brown. ****.
In 1846, a young woman, Sarah Graves, set out with her family from Illinois to resettle in California. Her family had heard of the great opportunities that existed there and had read about them in various publications, including Lansford Hastings’ “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California,” published in 1845. What readers of this book did not know was that Hastings had a separate agenda. He wanted people to settle in those parts of California that he had option rights to the land. He cooperated in this scheme with Colonel Sutter, who hoped that the ultimate power of the settlers would enable them to wrest California from the control of the Mexican government. Knowing little about what might be in store for them, the Graves family set out with their wagons, oxen, and supplies to St. Joseph, MO, where they met up with other families who were heading the same way, including the George and Jacob Donner families from Springfield, IL. They had all heard that it was safer to travel in larger groups – primarily to fend off the probable threats of unknown indian tribes in the west. One of the wagons contained a young man with whom Sarah had made an agreement to marry. They did so on the trip west. What this group of emigres didn’t realize was how long it would take to travel to where they hoped to end up. While they only lost a few days here and there, it all added up to ultimately being weeks behind the weather. They reached the foothills of the Sierras in September, and, in normal times would have been able to make it over the mountains before bad weather hit. They were not lucky. An early snowstorm of what seemed like massive proportions hit the mountains when the group of travellers were too far along to turn back, and they became marooned. Their supplies were already at a critical level, along with their strength, and they suffered terribly as the storm front dumped about twenty-five feet of snow on their party. There was a scramble to build some kind of shelter for the different families, and they ended up with a melange of cabins and lean-tos that would – supposedly carry them through the worst of the storm. The storm, however, was greater than they expected, and the travelers soon suffered from the cold and hunger to a degree beyond anything they had imagined. What happened after those first few weeks is well known, and the author spends most of his time describing their efforts to send out parties in search of help. He wraps up the book with descriptions of what happened to the survivors when they finally reached safety in California and the subsequent effects of their actions on the rest of their lives. In between all of these descriptions, the author manages to set out the results of research that has been conducted since those times about the reactions to stress and deprivations of that sort, and lets us know what might well be expected from those who have to go through hard times like this. In all, we come out with a better understanding of the physical and mental manifestations of these deprivations on humans than we had before reading this account. In all, this was an excellent retelling of this tragic event in American history. Recommended.
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