In the spring of 1846, Sarah Graves set out with her family and new husband to join an ever-growing number of settlers moving west in search of a better life. But instead of using a somewhat established route to Oregon, the Graves family became part of the Donner party, a group of settlers taking a “shortcut” to California. Unbeknownst to them, the odds of reaching the destination were against the party almost from the beginning.
Traveling at that time was always a great risk; there was few reliable information about the land, and often there was simply no one around to help if something went wrong. The Donner party had to deal with everyday mishaps that were not uncommon, but it was further handicapped by a late departure and a particularly early snowstorm that left the group trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains with little shelter and food.
The Indifferent Stars Above is the harrowing story of these people who suddenly found themselves stranded in freezing temperatures and never-ending snow. They were hungry and cold. Once there was no food left, survivors turned to cannibalism. In history books, the Donner party and cannibalism are often synonymous, but there is so much more to the story. Yes, there was despair and horror, but there was also bravery and hope. It is remarkable that there were any survivors at all.
Daniel James Brown (of The Boys in the Boat fame) has meticulously researched the Donner party, and particularly Sarah Graves, who is one of his ancestors. He followed Sarah’s trail as much as is possible 150 years later. He does a good job bringing the story alive, injecting the gruesome narrative with anecdotes about customs of the times and contemporary research, for example, how hunger impacts the human body or how weather patterns form. He also speculates about how the characters might have felt in certain situations. Some readers might be bothered by this, but I found it consistently plausible.
The included pictures were an interesting addition. I wish there had also been a map to visualize the settlers’ move west. But that’s my only, very small complaint.