Tuesday, 7 May 2019


5 out of 5 stars

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How I discovered this book: it was recommended in the acknowledgements in The Hunger by Alma Katsu, as one of the books she had used for her research.

In a Nutshell: Non-fiction - account of the Donner Party's fatal crossing of American by wagon train, in 1846/7.

I was gripped by this book all the way through.  It tells the story of a party of pioneers travelling from Illinois to California in 1846, to start a new life.  But they made 3 fatal mistakes: they set off too late, they travelled too slowly, and, instead of taking the traditional route up into Oregon and down into California, they took a short cut, the 'Hastings Cut-Off', little knowing that Lansford Hastings, who was trying to lure more Americans into Mexico-owned California, had never actually tested the route himself.  Somewhere between a third and a half of the pioneers perished en route.

The account is fascinating on so many levels: Rarick gives a great insight into the characters of the travellers, and I actually found it easier to follow the large cast in this non-fiction account than in the novel.  I like that he dispelled many of the myths about the relationship between the travellers and the native Americans; for the most part, the latter were helpful, and friendly.  

The already difficult journey becomes tragic in the extreme once the party realises that they have hit the mountains at the onset of winter; a large section of the book is concerned with this part of the journey, with all its horrors; starvation, divisions in the group, failed attempts to cross the high peaks, many deaths, and cannibalism. Rarick has given all viewpoints, taken from those who survived it, the rescuers, and the accounts in the newspapers afterwards.  The last part of the book is spent discussing what was true, what was exaggerated, and the downright lies that were conjured up for the purpose of selling books and newspapers.  Also, he tells what happened to the survivors after their ordeal was over.  

Most tragic of all is the thought that within some of the survivors' lifetimes, new technology would have made their crossing so much easier, saving many lives. 

A terrific book that I recommend most highly.