Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Indifferent Stars Above - book

The Indifferent Stars Above The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, by Daniel James Brown (William Morrow, 2009).

And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above.

W. B. Yeats,
“A Dream of Death”

Daniel James Brown could probably not have found a better poem to introduce this book about the experiences of Sarah Graves, a new bride, with the ill-fated Donner party tragedy of the 1840’s. I think it also makes for an exceptionally fine title for a description of human suffering almost beyond belief.

This book goes far beyond previous accounts of the Donner party horrors. Brown followed the known route of Sarah and the other ill-fated pioneers all the way from their starting point in Illinois to the Sacramento valley where a few survivors stumbled to safety after their weeks of snow-bound captivity and starvation in the high mountain pass. With his knowledge of the terrain and climate, and using the surviving diary entries and sparse records, he attempts to describe their daily movements, what they ate (or did not have to eat), how they managed to survive or failed to survive the bitter cold, frostbite, snowblindness, and their ravaging hunger, and, finally, the desperate cannibalism. What makes this book virtually unique is the author’s use of the most recent scientific research on nutrition, physiology, psychology, chemistry, and survival, to attempt to describe the actual physiological and psychological changes that must have affected them as they tried to live on the sparse foodstuffs that were available to them, and how these changes may have influenced even their interpersonal relations. They ate the flesh of horses, mules, dogs, boiled and chewed on hides and leather, and went for periods of time with nothing at all, until finally succumbing to the tabooed cannibalism where they sought nourishment from the lean flesh of those who perished during this terrible sojourn. Try to imagine, if you will, Sarah’s father instructing her to eat his flesh to survive, or Sarah having to watch as her few remaining peers consumed the flesh of her deceased husband. We know that one of Sarah’s younger sisters, upon learning she had survived by eating her mother’s flesh, was so obsessed with guilt she never fully recovered. Of course all of the survivors suffered their own private anguish over what they had done, but some of them went on to live reasonably normal and productive lives. Sarah, for example, recovered and eventually remarried and had children, as did a few of the other women. We cannot know for certain how accurate Brown’s speculations about their condition are, but they seem convincing and are well presented. He offers some ideas about the interesting fact that most of the survivors were female rather than male. I was not entirely convinced by his explanation for some of the cannibalism but this did not keep me from being impressed with his work.

Although Brown chose to focus on Sarah Graves this seems more an attempt to hold the story together than to offer a biographical sketch of just one woman. He describes many of the characters involved, as well as some of their squabbles and fights, both before and after their terrible time on the mountain. It is clear there were at least two murders directly related to the cannibalism, there may have been more, and there were others unrelated to cannibalism. No one was charged and at least one of the offenders went on to become wealthy and successful in California. This is an ambitious and fascinating account of one of history’s greatest and most grisly affairs. It is well conceived, well written, and well worth reading. From the dust jacket:

“One by one, feathery flakes landed on cold blankets and buffalo robes, on sweat-slicked hair, on shoulders turned to the sky, on soft cheeks – each flake delicate and slight, but each lending its almost imperceptible weight to the horror of what was about to happen….”

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