Desperate Passage The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

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Format: Paperback
Pub. Date: 2009-07-08
Publisher(s): Oxford University Press
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Summary

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened--and what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion--remained shrouded in myth. Drawing on fresh archeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity." A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, Desperate Passage casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront. "This sober, unflinching look at one of the great tragedies of America's pioneering past tells us a great deal that is new about the Donner Party's trials. Rarick scythes away the myths of one of the nation's better-known sagas, and offers up this horrific but ennobling tale in all its freshly researched detail." --Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa "His is the first significant book, written...in a novelistic mode and likely to gain popular readership." --New York Times Book Review "Rarick takes an evenhanded and thorough approach to the story. His telling is evocative and easy to read." --Seattle Times "Rarick makes this compelling frontier drama all the more so." --National Geographic Adventure Magazine "A wise book, not only a horror or an adventure story but a universal and timeless tale about acts of desperation performed by average people under extreme conditions." --Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West

Author Biography


Ethan Rarick has written about politics, crime, business and sports throughout the West. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he is the author of California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Table of Contents

List of Charactersp. x
Prologuep. 1
Journeyp. 5
Tribulationp. 103
Salvationp. 161
Author's Notep. 247
Acknowledgmentsp. 250
Notesp. 251
Selected Bibliographyp. 273
Indexp. 280
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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