The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

10171793In 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.

I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tour, which provided me with a copy of the book. You can check out Daniel James Brown’s website for more information about this and his other books here.




  1. This sounds really interesting – it’s not a story I have heard of before in Australia, but I remember watching, then reading Centennial back in the early 1980’s as a young teen. The pioneering section of the story fascinated me – the bravery, the innocence, the lack of preparation, the faith it would all be okay. The resilience.

    I will have to add this to my growing nonfic wishlist 🙂

  2. Oh yes, I just finished reading & reviewing “The Indifferent Stars” too for the Tour. It’s quite a hair-raising tale and I did feel quesy a few times over the cannibalism. It’s hard not to think of the Donner Party when I’m outside in harsh winter conditions. I think: the Donners did this! This is nothing.

  3. As long as nonfiction authors have a good reason for their speculation and let you know when they’re speculating, I can really enjoy it when they add in characters’ emotions. This sounds like a great read!

  4. So interested to read your review — I’m just reading it now because I don’t like to read any other reviews before I write my own. It really was a fascinating book, wasn’t it? I did get confused with the huge cast of characters, as well as with the geography — a map definitely would have been helpful. What a horrific event — certainly makes us realize how cushy our lives are now.

  5. The fact that Sarah Graves is one of his ancestors, makes this even more interesting. Parts of this story make me think of The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I think this one is probably a bit more horrifying. Why is it that we’re drawn to reading about awful things that have happened to real people?

    • Yeah, I liked the family connection, too. And you are right, parts of this story sound like The Long Winter, only I think this one is worse. They set out with such high hopes and well-prepared, compared to others.
      Do you think it’s voyeurism that makes us read about aweful things? A “better them then me” syndrome?

      • Partly, I think. And, also, ‘what can I do to make sure nothing like that ever happens to me?’ And, ‘what would I have done in that situation?’ And, also just plain curiosity, which might be my main reason.

      • Your reasons are so much nicer than mine! 🙂 And you’re right, of course. Good old curiosity. Can you tell I was stuck in traffic this morning because people were busy staring at an accident?

  6. I was thinking about doing this tour, but decided to pass. But, I’m really glad you loved this one! I’m interested…how did it compare to Boys in the Boat? I loved that one!

    • I did really like it! I was curious to see how the two books stacked up against each other, because the the subject matter is so different. But they both work equally well, just good narrative nonfiction. If you liked his style in BITB, then you’ll like this one as well.

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