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Desperate Passage

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  2,087 Ratings  ·  258 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

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Published January 28th 2008 by Oxford University Press (first published February 4th 2007)
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Mar 01, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"...the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous." True indeed. This was an engaging and interesting book about the travails of the Donner Party. Anyone who lives in or has been to California has likely heard of or driven across Donner Pass, which is of course near Donner Lake. (There's even a roller derby team named The Donna Party.) A lot of focus in other stories rests on the cannibalism and so forth, but to judge their decisions from our comfortable p ...more
Mimi Vo
May 31, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Damon Lively
Mar 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 15, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good, quick, easy read about the tragedy of the Donner Party and I guess more accurate than previous books on the topic, though it seems less detailed (and much shorter) than other books on the topic. I still prefer Stewart's Ordeal By Hunger-- it really did a better job of giving the reader a full understanding of the severe trials the emigrants faced not only at their winter at the lake, but almost from Day 1 of the trip (the horrific crossing of the Great Salt Lake desert, for instance). Desp ...more
Apr 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-of-2012
This well written book seemed to be well researched as well. I finished it, realizing that that we will never know everything about this harrowing incident because of a mixture of truth and misinformation spread about this event afterward. What's even amazing to think about is how some of these survivors went on to lead relatively normal lives afterward. What would I have done? Would I have survived?
Dec 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jul 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This has got to be one of the most intense stories of tragedy and survival. I've driven the "shortcut" the pioneers took and spend a great deal of time in the outdoors where this event took place (with all the modern day gear, technology and conveniences) and cannot fathom what the people went through. This is one of those historical accounts everyone should read.
May 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Fascinating. Revolting. Inspiring.
Dawn Brady
Jan 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you love history, then you would love this book! Doesnt harp on the horror of their situation, but looks deeper into it.....
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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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