The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party

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On April 14, 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois, in search of a better life in the largely unsettled California territory. The trip started well but eventually questionable choices and infighting delayed pioneers' attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada until winter. As the impassable snows closed in and their supplies dwindled to nothing, the group faced an almost hopeless struggle for survival that would push some toward the final taboo of cannibalism. Nearly half the members of the Donner ...

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Overview

On April 14, 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois, in search of a better life in the largely unsettled California territory. The trip started well but eventually questionable choices and infighting delayed pioneers' attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada until winter. As the impassable snows closed in and their supplies dwindled to nothing, the group faced an almost hopeless struggle for survival that would push some toward the final taboo of cannibalism. Nearly half the members of the Donner Party were children. This account, filled with selections from the survivors' letters and diaries, focuses on the children's experiences, making it uniquely compelling and accessible to young readers. Index, bibliography, chronology, group rosters, suggestions for further research.

Uses materials from letters and diaries written by survivors of the Donner Party to relate the experiences of that ill-fated group as they endured horrific circumstances on their way to California in 1846-47.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"From the haunting cover with its lonely campfire to the recounting of a survivor's reunion, this is a page-turner." BOOKLIST, starred review Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

Virginia Reed was nearly thirteen in the fateful spring of 1846, when her family joined the families of George and Jacob Donner for their now notorious wagon train trek from Springfield, Illinois, to California. Marian Calabro focuses heavily on Virginia's viewpoint and experiences and makes extensive use of the diaries and letters of several of the travelers to personalize the remarkable tale of a trip gone tragically awry. As in David Lavender's Snowbound , the author here carefully reconstructs the deteriorating chain of events that had begun in luxury and optimism. Was there a root cause of the disaster? Lavender made a strong case for the bad advice about a shortcut promised in Lansford Hastings's book, which the Donners and Reeds were following. Calabro agrees that to a certain extent Hastings was a charlatan, but she provides a fuller account of the mistaken judgments and human dynamics that stranded the group in their deadly winter camp. The banishment of James Reed from the party for the death of John Snyder caused further suffering for Virginia and Patty Reed and their mother. After recounting the desperate days of cannibalism and rescue, the author adds three chapters detailing the rapid immigration to California and Oregon in the years after the Donner group's arrival, the further history of the survivors, and their twentieth-century legacy. A liberal assortment of historical photographs convey the setting and people. The richly detailed and interesting account concludes with the full text of Virginia's long 1847 letter to her cousin back in Springfield, a chronology, roster of the dead, bibliography, websites, and index.
Horn Book

A vivid yet even-handed account of the ill-fated Donner Partythe California-bound wagon train that was forced by impassable snow to camp for the winter of 184647 on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, resorting to cannibalism when there was literally nothing else to eat. Calabro neither shrinks from nor sensationalizes this aspect of the story. Instead she places it in a carefully constructed context beginning with the start of the journey in Springfield, Illinois, on April 15, and chronicling each unfortunate decision along the way that ultimately led to the company's entrapment. Making good use of primary sources, especially the letters and memoirs of Virginia Reed, who turned 13 on the journey, the author tells of Virginia's excitement at having her own pony to ride west. However, she doesn't limit the story to Virginia's perspective, but skillfully profiles many members of the party, including Virginia's dynamic father, James, who strongly favored taking an unproven shortcut, and the intelligent and perceptive Tamsen Donner, who was firmly against it. The result is a combination of well-researched factual detail, a gripping narrative, strong characterizations, and a thoughtful analysis of the historical record. (b&w photos, chronology, further reading, bibliography, index) Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Calabro's (Operation Grizzly Bear) gripping account of the Donner party's infamous 1846 trek from Illinois to the largely unsettled territory of California chronicles the unfortunate choices, travel conditions and personality conflicts that conspired against the pioneers to leave them stranded in the mountains for the winter. Of the 90 emigrants, teenagers and children comprised almost half of the party and proved the majority of survivors. Calabro incorporates memoirs, diaries and letters to capture the sense of adventure and joy at the start of their journey and to provide insight into the acts of rancor, heroism, cruelty and kindness that surfaced throughout the expedition, mountain imprisonment and rescue. The author conveys much of the experience through the eyes of survivor Virginia Reed, who was 13 when the party headed west; young readers will be particularly moved by her powerful letter at the end of the ordeal, printed here in its entirety. Calabro responsibly tackles the cannibalism that made these settlers an object of horror in their own time and the subject of grisly jokes in our own. By placing the desperate act in context, the author shows the dire circumstances that forced survivors to resort to, in her words, "the last taboo." She includes an insightful epilogue on the survivors, and devotes a chapter to the party's enduring legacy and the ancestors, landmarks and monuments that stand as testimony to both their sacrifice and survival. Maps, pictures, drawings and etchings from museums as well as the author's own collection support the skillful exposition of this horrifying and tragic episode in the history of the West. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
This was one of the most chilling biographies I read this year. This book is not for the faint-hearted, for the author lays out the terrible truths, horrid conditions, and suspected actualities of the ill-fated trip. There, with supporting pictures, are the tragic stories of pride and misdirection that lead eighty-one people to become lost, and then trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevadas with so little food and water that they resorted to severe methods of survival. A young adult I know, and whose opinions I trust, was deeply disturbed by this book. This is due not only to the book's themes, but the author's excellent narration. 1999, Clarion, Ages 12 up, $20.00. Reviewer: Susie Wilde
VOYA
In 1846 Virginia Reed and her family left Springfield, Missouri, and joined a wagon train bound for California. What started out as a hopeful, exuberant crossing turned into a nightmare due to poor choices, terrible conditions, freezing weather, and lack of supplies. Virginia, almost thirteen at the time, was one of the survivors of this group, later known as the Donner party. Virginia's own recollections as well as other primary sources contribute to the vivid account, from the excitement of the early days to the controversy over the socalled shortcut around the Great Salt Lake to becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Once the caravan became trapped in the mountains, members ate shoes, rugs, family pets, and, eventually, their dead companionsgruesome acts that made these travelers infamous. Calabro presents the cannibalistic aspects without sensationalism and also relating what happened to the survivors and their descendants. The layout is attractive; the photographs and maps are clear and informative, giving the reader visual images of the participants and circumstances of the expedition. Because Calabro covers the experiences of the children and teenagers who made up almost half of the Donner party, her chronicle will be of particular interest to its target audience. This quality nonfiction work will be enjoyed by history buffs and true adventure fans alike. Encourage students looking for a nonfiction assignment book to read it as well. Index. Illus. Photos. Maps. Biblio. Further Reading. Chronology. Appendix. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; JuniorHigh,defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 1999, Clarion, Ages 12 to 18, 192p, $20. Reviewer: Alice F. Stern
The ALAN Review - Jeanne Gerlach
Marian Calabro draws a realistic picture of the Donner Party journey from the 1846 Springfield, Illinois beginning to the California destination in 1847. The journey is chronicled in a candid detail with a focus on the experiences of the young adults and children who made up nearly half of the travelers. The readers come to know the Donner group through the letters and recollections of Virginia Reed, a twelve-year-old girl who tells of the journey, describing perils they incurred along the way. Calabro includes a map of the main and alternate routes west. Additionally, she includes a details chronology of the journey, a roster of the dead, and information including books, videos, and websites for further study. Of course, a complete bibliography is included. An extra bonus is the art work depicted throughout the book. This book is one of the best I've seen on the Donner Party.
Children's Literature
Between April 1846 and April 1847, in search of a better life on free land available in California, 32 men, women, and children journeyed by wagon train from Springfield, Illinois across roughly
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-In the spring of 1846, George and Jacob Donner, James Reed, and their families left Illinois bound for the California territory. A series of accidents and bad decisions slowed their progress along the trail west. By the beginning of November, the group was snowed in at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ultimately, half of the party died, and in desperation, many of the remaining travelers were forced to eat the dead in order to survive. This well-written account of this ill-fated expedition draws heavily on the observations of 12-year-old Virginia Reed and pays particular attention to the plight of the children who were part of the band. By placing the cannibalism carefully in the context of the almost unending string of difficulties faced and mistakes made by the members of the party, Calabro is able to discuss the subject without sensationalizing it. A final chapter describes the later lives of some of the survivors. There is a lengthy bibliography, a list of Web sites, and a transcript of the letter that Virginia wrote to her cousin after she reached safety, chronicling the journey. Black-and-white photographs and reproductions appear throughout. This book is more detailed than David Lavender's Snowbound: The Tragic Story of the Donner Party Holiday, 1996, which is for younger readers. Generations of Americans have been fascinated with this story, and young readers will no doubt find Calabro's title fascinating as well.-Elaine Fort Weischedel, Turner Free Library, Randolph, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Bush
[A] richly detailed and interesting account.
The Horn Book Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid yet even-handed account of the ill-fated Donner Party—the California-bound wagon train that was forced by impassable snow to camp for the winter of 1846–47 on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, resorting to cannibalism when there was literally nothing else to eat. Calabro neither shrinks from nor sensationalizes this aspect of the story. Instead she places it in a carefully constructed context beginning with the start of the journey in Springfield, Illinois, on April 15, and chronicling each unfortunate decision along the way that ultimately led to the company's entrapment. Making good use of primary sources, especially the letters and memoirs of Virginia Reed, who turned 13 on the journey, the author tells of Virginia's excitement at having her own pony to ride west. However, she doesn't limit the story to Virginia's perspective, but skillfully profiles many members of the party, including Virginia's dynamic father, James, who strongly favored taking an unproven shortcut, and the intelligent and perceptive Tamsen Donner, who was firmly against it. The result is a combination of well-researched factual detail, a gripping narrative, strong characterizations, and a thoughtful analysis of the historical record. (b&w photos, chronology, further reading, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395866108
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Pages: 192
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 1020L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Marian Calabro is a published author with a special interest in biography and history. She lives in New Jersey.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2004

    So fascinating

    I was visiting Donner Pass for the first time in California. I bought this book so I could learn more about this journey. I have traveled many of the areas mentioned in this book and let me tell you, those areas have nothing there to this day except a freeway or is exactly the same as when the Donner party passed through, so the writer brought this difficult journey of the Donner party to life amazingly with no exaggeration of what these fine people accomplished so many years ago. I recommend this book highly. It is beautifully and respectively written with pictures of some of the people involved and areas they passed through. You will not go wrong reading this book. I hated it to end, so I have purchased another book by another author to read that the author of The Perilous Journey of the Donner party mentioned in her book. I am an avid reader, and I wouldn't recommend any book unless it was extremely good. You won't be able to put it down!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2009

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