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10 / 30 books. 33% done!

2024 Literary Escapes Challenge

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50 / 104 books. 48% done!

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39 / 52 books. 75% done!

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45 / 165 books. 27% done!
Thursday, December 16, 2021

Mormon Mentions: Daniel James Brown

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?). As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media. Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here. Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture.

Just to be clear, my father only has one wife. As does my husband. No, I do not have horns hidden underneath my hair, nor am I a member of a cult. Believe it or not, I have been asked all of these questions before!


In The Indifferent Stars Above, Daniel James Brown mentions Mormons—who, under the direction of Brigham Young, established a colony in Utah's Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, a year after the Donner Party took their ill-fated journey—four times. I chose just two of the passages to talk about here.

"For the next two weeks, they [the Donner Party] rolled northwest, passing and being passed by elements of what had been the Russell Party, now under the leadership of Lilburn Boggs, the fiercely anti-Mormon former governor of Missouri who had taken over leadership when Russell resigned on June 18" (77)

Lilburn Boggs is a well-known villain in Mormon history. I grew up hearing tales of his hateful persecution of early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From 1836 to 1840, he served as governor of Missouri, where he dealt with heated conflict between members of the Church and residents of Missouri, who were concerned about the influx of Mormon settlers to the area. Many Missourians were outraged by their presence and sought to drive the religious group out of Missouri. Boggs agreed, issuing Missouri Executive Order 44 (known as the "Extermination Order") on October 27, 1838. In part, the order said: The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may consider necessary. Fearing for their lives, thousands of Church members fled the state in terror. This kind of persecution followed them wherever they went, prompting their eventual migration to Utah.

I've never thought about what happened to Boggs after that, so I was startled to see his name in The Indifferent Stars Above. Some say he headed to California because of his fear of Mormon retaliation (someone did try to kill him in 1842, although the identity of his would-be assassin was never discovered). Whatever his reason, he journeyed to the Sunshine State in 1846 with a party of pioneers that included his wife and children. They settled in Sonoma, where Boggs became a store owner and a postmaster. He died in Napa County in 1880. So says that venerable news source Wikipedia, anyway.

"There is anecdotal evidence...that the winter of 1846 was unusually cold across the Northern Hemisphere...At their Winter Quarters in Nebraska, thousands of Mormons suffered terribly, and more than six hundred of them died, in bitterly cold blizzards that swept across the plains" (226).

I also grew up hearing stories about the great suffering of the Saints in Winter Quarters, although none of my Mormon pioneer ancestors were among them. It's a sad chapter in our history. There is now a Mormon Trail Center on the Winter Quarters site in Omaha, Nebraska, where you can learn more about what happened there.

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.

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