BOOKLIGHT: “THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE”: an enthrallling saga of emigration and tragedyThrough meticulous research – including walking much of the actual physical path that the emigrants walked more than 160 years ago – and through his extraordinary empathy and prose, Brown has created a work of narrative non-fiction that gives true and new insights into the events that transpired that awful winter of 1846-47 – and keeps the reader enthralled and rushing to turn pages along the way.
By: Ellen Baker, Living North Magazine
When Sarah Graves Fosdick made the choice to emigrate from Illinois to California with her parents, siblings, and new husband in 1846, she knew the journey by wagon would be difficult, but she had no way of anticipating the singular horrors that the trail had in store. Her story is the focus of the remarkable book “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride” by Daniel James Brown.
As the author points out, the Donner Party story has been so much told that “the true stories and the fictional ones have bred and interbred in the American imagination.” Through meticulous research – including walking much of the actual physical path that the emigrants walked more than 160 years ago – and through his extraordinary empathy and prose, Brown has created a work of narrative non-fiction that gives true and new insights into the events that transpired that awful winter of 1846-47 – and keeps the reader enthralled and rushing to turn pages along the way.
The book begins with background on the Graves family and their life in Illinois, and 21-year-old Sarah’s hard choice between emigrating with her determined father and the rest of her family or staying to marry the man she loved – which would probably mean she would never see her parents or siblings again.(If that choice seems unfathomable to the modern reader, there is much, much more in store!) Happily, Sarah was able to marry her true love, Jay Fosdick, and stay with her family, as Jay broke from his own father’s demands and joined the Graves family and his new bride on the great journey to California.
Unfortunately, that’s really about the only truly “happy ending” in this tale. Delays in Missouri meant the Graves party started too late in the spring. Still, the summer was pleasant enough – if hiking a thousand miles while carting a thousand pounds of goods and worrying about Indian attacks could be considered pleasant. (Brown provides interesting asides along the way about everything from 1840s attitudes toward sex and death to varieties and period treatments of malaria.)
The Graves party encountered various forks in the trail as they moved farther westward; they and their companions seemed to choose the wrong one every time. Particularly once when they fell under the guidance of an enterprising confidence man, Lansford Hastings, who was hoping to open a new route to California and get rich off of passing settlers. The newly-formed party that chose this route elected George Donner captain.
The unproven route – which Hastings had never actually traveled himself – proved horrendously difficult, even impassable in places, and the emigrants were forced to struggle up and down steep mountains through dense forests, and slowed to a crawl by the necessity of cutting paths for their oxen teams and wagons. Conscious all the anxious while that winter snows would soon come, with tensions rising and one member of the party cast out for murdering another in a fit of rage, they found themselves at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains just as the first heavy snows closed the pass ahead.
After several desperate, fruitless attempts to cross the mountains, the 88 members of the party realized they were stranded – and their supplies were nearly diminished. Snowshoes were constructed for a brave few, and fifteen people – including Sarah, her husband, sister, and father – soon set out to seek help. Once again, they had gravely misjudged their location and their route, and their journey became an unimaginable ordeal, even as the situation back at the camp descended into horror, as well.
I have to admit that I shuddered and squirmed through much of the latter half of the book, as the ill-fated emigrants’ situation deteriorated – and as they made the unthinkable choice to sustain themselves with the flesh of the deceased among them. At one point, I was so relieved to think the stranded folks had been rescued – but no, things only got even worse again. But that I felt such sympathy for their plight and such visceral reactions to the events described I think only points to Brown’s amazing ability to put the reader into Sarah’s and the other emigrants’ shoes. In his hands, there is no gratuitous horror, only the actual horror that was; along with the lingering questions of family and sacrifice, of self and morality, of despair and hope, and of where they may be found.
Ellen Baker is the author of Keeping the House: A Novel, now available in paperback. She lives in northeastern Minnesota, where she is working on her second novel. Visit her website at www.ellenbakernovels.com.