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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

4.5 22
by Ethan Rarick

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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


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, what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion, remained shrouded in myth. Drawing on fresh archaeological 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. But 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, A Desperate Hope 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.

Editorial Reviews

Dana Goodyear
Rarick's account is not really about science; it is about humanity, and his major contribution is his choice to focus on the Reed family. In most tellings, the Donners, for obvious reasons, are at the emotional center of the story. Rarick, instead, finds a greater dramatic vehicle in James Reed—"a man with a full head of hair and a bit of a smirk and iron convictions, others be damned"—who traveled with his wife, Margret; her mother (she died on the trail); and four children…Rarick has done his homework—visiting the many archives where primary-source records are available, skillfully synthesizing that great body of material and even traveling the Donner party route himself. His approach to the many conflicting and contradictory accounts is conciliatory.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
"His is the first significant book, written, like Stewart's, in a novelistic mode and likely to gain popular readership, to incorporate this new data...Rarick's account is not really about science; it's about humanity...Rarick has done his homework."—New York Times Book Review

"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. Readers take heed: this is a tough book, but a gripping one."—Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa

"Rarick takes an evenhanded and thorough approach to the story of the Donners' covered-wagon migration across the country and their winter entrapment in the Sierras. His telling is evocative and easy to read."—Seattle Times

"Desperate Passage is the most up-to-date narrative history of the Donner Party available today and as such is a welcome addition to the literature. General readers, especially those who know of the Donner party only as the cannibal wagon train, will undoubtedly find it a fascinating read."—Overland Journal

"Many books tell the Donner story, but none digs as deep for the truth as Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West...With personal details...bringing a human touch to the story, Desperate Passage succeeds in rescuing the Donner Party from 162 years of infamy."—Tacoma News Tribune

"A history of the first rank—precise, restrained and compelling...Desperate Passage makes a gripping tale, and Rarick makes a scrupulous guide."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"With a reporter's doggedness and a scholar's thoroughness, Rarick has clarified the historical details...Rarick makes this compelling frontier drama all the more so."—National Geographic Adventure Magazine

"A clean, chilling cautionary story of misjudgment and perseverance...Rarick deals with this most extreme of issues [cannibalism] with the evenhandedness and lack of melodrama that characterize the book throughout."—Houston Chronicle

"A well-written, copiously documented account."—Deseret Morning News

"Reads like a novel, and for those who are drawn to American history...coupled with one of the most grisly survival tales in history, then this is the absolute book for you."—Monsters and Critics website

"Desperate Passage is 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—a situation that can befall coal miners in Utah, soccer teams in the Andes, occupants of the World Trade Center, or readers of the book."—Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West

"Rarick illuminates this classic America stage through a deftly told drama of courage and cowardice...with a fascinating cast ranging from the iconic American Everyman to the astonishing scoundrels."—Van Gordon Sauter, former President, CBSNews

"Like the foreboding passages in an operatic overture, the ordeal of the Donner Party warned Americans that tragedy could not be banished from this newly acquired province. In this meticulously detailed narrative, Ethan Rarick presents the full horror and bravery of a dystopian episode that would forever qualify the California experience."—Kevin Starr, University of Southern California, author of Americans and the California Dream

"The story of the ill-fated Donner Party's trek across the country is the reverse image of Lewis and Clark's: seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong—from bad leadership to disastrous choices, from fatal accidents to murderous fights, and finally a ghastly ordeal in the Sierra snows. It's a remarkable story for all generations, and with the advantage of updated research and a keen eye for detail, Ethan Rarick builds a quick-moving narrative."—Dayton Duncan, author of Out West: An American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail

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Oxford University Press
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3 MB

Meet the Author

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.

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Desperate Passage 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a true documentary of this event, I would highly recommend this as both extremely interesting as well as based on facts.
AuthorByNight More than 1 year ago
I have read several books why researching events surrounding the Donner Party saga and this one is the best by far. Extremely well written and will keep your interest throughout. This is not a casual book that you will knock out in an evening because it contains so much valuable information and demands your attention. The characters will become more than acquaintances, they will become family. Bravo to the author! Get this book. You will not be sorry.
The-Write-Words More than 1 year ago
I've read a lot about the Donner Party and this is the definitive book on their journey. I especially liked the 'realistic' comparisons as to what these folk went through. Brougt it all home to a reader of this century. Every American should read this book. DebraE
Laura Stevenson More than 1 year ago
This is a great all around book! Wonderfully written with accounts of those who traveled the trail, great book for anyone wanting to learn the truth about the Donner Party and life on the California Trail! Great Book!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading several Donner Party books, this is the best so far. Sticks as close to the known facts as possible relying on every source available. Wonderful reading non-fiction for American history buffs.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story itself holds the readers interest. The author expresses opinions about white emigrants and America during the 19th century that are intertwined with the facts. I only read history. I can spot opinion over fact easier than most probably, and believe placing opinion next to facts undermines an authors work and credibility as a historian.
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mstrust More than 1 year ago
This book starts off slowly, just as the wagon party forms and begins its journey from Independence, Mo. Rarick takes the reader through the prairie as the Donner Party endures the heat, the loss of livestock, the deaths along the way. Once the party became stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the coldest winter on record, the many deaths occurred one after another, leaving many of the families with just one or two members alive. This is a well-researched book that has the advantage over older versions of this tragedy because of recent testings of bones found at the campsite. Rarick also goes beyond the events that made the party famous and gives accounts of what happened to the survivors years and even decades after.
Lilo02 More than 1 year ago
I've learned very little about the Donner Party through out my school years. In fact all I knew about it was that they were a large wagon party that split somewhere in the Midwest and the half that went more the southern straight route were struck by cannibalism. Most people when hearing about the Donner Party and the fate that struck them think the most barbarious things that usually are involved with cannibalism. I never thought like that because I had a clear memory of what little it was that I learned about that party and its fate in school. Rarick does a great job, in so many ways, disecting cannibalism through out human history and how and why it grasped the hold of the Donner Party, or likely why they fell to such a fate, how the human psychology deals with it as it did with the survivors of the Donner Party. I highly recommand this book to all those who love U.S. History (and who have strong stomachs) to read this book.
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