The tale of the Donner party is one of the mythic tragedies of American history. In The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality. Through painstaking research and powerful narrative, Brown tracks the disparate groups of pioneers who ended up snowbound in the High Sierras in the winter of 1846-1847, infamously turning to cannibalism when their food ran out. While the book ostensibly focuses on Sarah Graves, a young bride traveling with her family and new husband, its scope is panoramic, taking in everything from the Mexican-American War, to mid-19th-century hygiene practices, to conflicts over money, leadership and routes.
Drawing on contemporary accounts, historical research, scholarly studies of topics like survival psychology and the physiology of starvation, and his own retracing of the Donner party’s steps, Brown vividly depicts the sights, sounds and smells of the Emigrant Trail. Most strikingly, he plausibly reconstructs how Graves and other members of the Donner party would have felt, physically and emotionally, as they pushed their wagons up the Wasatch mountains, staggered across Utah’s salt desert, tried to protect themselves from powerful winter storms, and finally faced the choice—or so they thought—of eating the flesh of family and friends or starving to death. It’s not a pretty tale, but Brown makes it utterly compelling, creating a horror story that we keep hoping will have a happy ending, even as we know it won’t.
Except that for some, it did. For much of the book, Graves is an inadequate heroine. Brown himself points out that there is “little record” of her, and she often seems less a focal point than a minor character. But unlike her husband and parents, she survived the horrors, ultimately making a successful life in California for herself and her surviving sisters. In the end, Graves becomes a symbol, not just of the ability to withstand inconceivable hardship, but of hope itself. This book is a fitting tribute to her story.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts.