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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Harrowing, Horrifying Donner Party Tragedy Sensitively Explored in Brown's Engrossing Account

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everyone who visits BBB regularly knows I love a gripping, immersive survival story. If it's true? Even better. As we all well know, not everyone in the infamous Donner Party lived to tell the group's grisly tale, but enough did that we have a pretty good idea of what happened that fateful winter in 1847
when they became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While cannibalism is what they became known for, there is a lot more to their story. Who were the people in the Donner Party? Where were they headed? How did they lose their way and become perilously trapped in the snow? Why did they resort to eating the flesh of their family members and friends? If you can stomach the more macabre details, theirs is a truly fascinating story. Daniel James Brown tells it well in his engrossing account, The Indifferent Stars Above.

Brown became interested in researching the Donner Party when he discovered he was distantly related to one of its members, a young woman named Sarah Graves Fosdick. She accompanied her parents, her eight younger siblings, and her new husband on the journey from Illinois to California. Brown decided to use her viewpoint to tell the stories of a group of travelers whom he says "deserve better" than to be remembered only as clichéd pioneers who were forced to make a horrible, desperate choice in order to survive an utterly hopeless situation. Brown describes the whole tragedy from beginning to end in a manner that is sensitive, compelling, and illuminating. With all the elements that make for great fiction—an extreme setting, interesting characters, nail-biting tension, and constant conflict of multiple varieties—it's a riveting read. Narrative non-fiction at its best.

Because the story of the Donner Party is about a lot more than just cannibalism, the majority of the book has nothing to do with consuming human flesh. The sections that do address it are—not gonna lie—grisly and nauseating, even though Brown doesn't sensationalize what happened or use overly graphic descriptions. He doesn't need to. The facts are horrifying enough in and of themselves. What really comes through from Brown's account, though, is the humanity of those in the Donner Party. They were ordinary people who faced extraordinary circumstances and had to make agonizing decisions as they slowly went mad from starvation, hypothermia, hopelessness, and despair. As with all books of this kind, The Indifferent Stars Above asks two very pointed questions: What would I do in similar circumstances? How far would I go to save myself and, perhaps more importantly, the people I love? 

Thought-provoking and arresting, this is an excellent read that I recommend highly to anyone who has the stomach for it. I wasn't sure I could get through it, but I'm glad I did. I love inspiring pioneer stories and absorbing survival tales—this is both. 

(Readalikes: Hm, I've read plenty of pioneer survival stories, but I can't think of one that really compares. You?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, disturbing subject matter, and blood/gore (the chapters on cannibalism are not overly graphic, but they might actually merit an R-rating simply because of what is happening in them)

To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of The Indifferent Stars Above with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.


  1. I'm glad this didn't focus mainly on the cannibalism. I might be too squeamish to read it though. I enjoyed the MG graphic novel about The Donner Party by Nathan Hale.

    1. You should probably skip this one then! I hadn't heard of the book by Hale. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the rec!

  2. I do like reading books about The Donner Party...I don't know why. Probably that hole struggle to survive story. Have you ever read Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton? It's a historical fiction story about the Donner Party, and I thought it was pretty good.

    1. It is a pretty dramatic survival (and not) story. It really is amazing than any of them made it out of there alive.

      No, I've never heard of the Burton novel. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the rec!

  3. I am curious about the people behind the Donner Party, but I already know I would be too icked out to finish this one. I'm glad to hear that it was done in a thought-provoking way, though!

    1. I totally get it, but it was super interesting to learn about the people in the party. They weren't monsters—just ordinary humans who were driven to something horrible because they were so desperate to survive.

  4. It's impossible to say what we would or wouldn't do in this type of situation. Sounds like a fascinating book. Lovely review Susan.

    1. Right? If I had to watch my children slowly starve to death, what would I do? Probably anything I had to...

  5. The Donner Party is one of those stories that is legend in schools. We have a Donner party rescuer buried in the cemetery near where I taught.

    1. It's fascinating it its awfulness, that's for sure! How interesting that someone connected with the event was buried near your school. Those rescuers must have been absolutely horrified by what they found—not just the evidence of what had happened, but also the state of the survivors. Walking corpses, basically.


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