Book review: ‘The Indifferent Stars Above,’ by Daniel James Brown
August 28, 2016
Daniel James Brown, the author who brought history alive in the bestselling saga, "The Boys In The Boat" — the captivating chronicle of a group of young American rowers who competed in Hitler's Olympics — has done it again, extracting another episode from history that has floated in and out of our collective, cultural periphery vision, bringing it front and center in gripping detail. When one considers famous tragic survival stories that have involved the taboo of cannibalism, there are several that come to mind, but often only glancingly and without any true awareness of what led to the terrible choices that were made. Due to it being more recent and better documented, and as some of the survivors are still alive, perhaps the most remembered incidence of cannibalism is the 1972 Andes disaster documented in the book, "Alive."
But, in his recent book, "The Indifferent Stars Above; The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party," Brown chooses to look back further in time, to the mid-19th century, when scores of exceedingly brave and strong individuals opted to leave the relative comforts of their homes in the settled regions of the United States and head west, trusting in their faith and the rumors of abundant acres of fertile land, ready for the taking. Some only went as far as the ready expanses of the plains, eager to put plow to soil. For countless others, though, their gazes drifted further, all the way to the honeyed shores of California.
As with many who dig deeply into history, Brown was first drawn to the Donner story by the mythology surrounding it, and he was pulled more firmly into its orbit upon seeing a faded photo of one of the survivors from the infamous group of emigrants who were stranded high in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the months just before the discovery of gold opened the flood gates to California's expansion.
Gazing into the eyes of Ms. Sarah Graves, Brown felt a real compulsion to tell her tale. He also felt that he could not simply wade through data that had been left to gather dust in a murky library basement; he felt a yearning to walk where she had walked, to follow her story from its hopeful beginnings to its desperate and tragic conclusion.
The Donner story, he knew, would pull at his emotions, for the depths of despair and the levels of suffering were so profound. It is worth pointing out, though, that those unlucky emigrants were reflective of the trials of many pioneers who overcame truly remarkable hurdles to seek new beginnings on the frontier. "To hear the only voices that can tell this story, you must almost hold your breath to listen. What they have to say is hard to hear, and harder still to come to terms with."
Brown, in his characteristically thorough style, pulls the reader along inch by riveting inch to the agonizing climax. He opens his book with an introduction of the emigrants as they assembled on the edge of the frontier, during their first days of optimism and promise, when the "amber waves of grain' rippled into the distance across the abundant plains before them, signaling prosperity and a plethora of opportunities. Unfortunately, ambitious businessmen awaited them in California, eager to benefit from the expected influx of vulnerable souls heading their way. With the Oregon Trail already well-trampled, California speculators and industrialists sought to tempt the emigrants to shift their travels south, promising them bounty and unspoiled land.
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The Donner party, as Brown describes in careful detail, took the bait of the untested shortcut, and many in the group paid the ultimate price for their haste and naiveté. Brought together as strangers who shared the common notion of Manifest Destiny, which fueled the country's expansion, they found themselves bound together for survival, for there was safety in numbers when faced with the unknown and the potential for encounters with hostile native tribes. Families with small children struggled to guide their heavily-laden covered wagons, pulled by cumbersome oxen, across thousands of miles of varying landscapes, only to find their way challenged first by the Salt Flats of the desert and then by the impenetrable crags and canyons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and finally by the devastating arrival of an early snow that portended a legendary harsh winter.
This is, of course, where the story becomes spellbinding, and Brown exhibits his mastery of getting at the rich marrow of a story. With the high mountain pass already heavenly laden with wet snow, the 87 souls who gambled on the southern shortcut were forced to build crude shelters and begin the daily task of survival, slowly slaughtering their livestock until a terrible inevitability faced them.
With starvation settling in and with moral boundaries blurring, primal desperation meant lines of love and loyalty began to fade. "When killing to survive, it's easiest to kill and eat whatever or whomever you are least attached to — cattle before horses, dogs before people, strangers before acquaintances, acquaintances before friends, friends before family." The suffering was unimaginable, with the most vulnerable facing the worst of it. Infants bore the greatest burden on the long and arduous journey, with many of them passing their short lives in abject misery from the extremes of the conditions they faced.
For the emigrants who survived the ordeal, Brown says, life after the experience was varied, and some weathered it better than others. Many of the Donner party settled near each other, sharing a bond of shame and guilt that few others could understand. What Brown himself struggled to understand, as he made his way along the route the doomed souls traveled was how "only a madman, or a serious salesman, could look at that landscape and propose taking a party of heavily laden wagons through it." But through it they went, and today only the whispers of what their lives could have been blow down from those high peaks, now cut through by a multi-lane highway that all but mocks the suffering those brave pioneers endured as they strove for a better future.
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