“Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality.”
“A compelling retelling of the ghastly events surrounding the Donner party. Daniel James Brown, using one survivor’s experience as his focus, moves beyond the cardboard figures depicted in previous accounts and shows how the lucky few endured and survived.”
“In this gripping narrative, Brown reveals the extremes of endurance that underlie the history of this nation, and more than that, of humanity in any part of the world, even today, surviving great peril in search of a better life.”
“An ideal pairing of talent and material. . . . Engrossing. . . . A deft and endearing storyteller.”
“Remarkable. ... Hard to put down.”
"At sunset, we crossed Truckee Lake on the ice, and came to the spot where, we had been told, we should find the emigrants. We looked all around, but no living thing except ourselves was in sight. We raised a loud hello. And then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her, several others made their appearance, in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine; and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice, very much agitated, and said, 'Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?' " The story of the ill-fated 184647 Donner Party, in which 39 people died and many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism, has been told many times before. In this penetrating book, Daniel James Brown explores the wagon train tragedy through the life of one young bride who survived this terrifying ordeal.
The Indifferent Stars Above is an ideal pairing of talent and material. In Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, Brown showed himself to be a deft and ambitious storyteller, sifting through the copious and often conflicting details of dozens of survivor and eyewitness accounts to forge a trim, surging minute-by-minute narrative. He takes more side trips here with snow than he did with fire. In almost every chapter, he steps away from the events at hand to provide historical or medical context. With a few exceptions, it's engrossing stuff…Brown isn't a showy writer, and that's probably for the best. With tragedy of this scale, an unadorned telling of the events speaks loudest.
The New York Times
In April 1846, as young newlywed Sarah Graves departed her Illinois home on a journey to California, she could not foresee the misery and horror that awaited her. After numerous delays on their difficult westward path, she and her family found themselves dangerously behind schedule as winter loomed, and they decided to join an ill-fated wagon train under the leadership of George Donner. Ending up snowbound and starving in the Sierra Nevada range, the Donner party descended into cannibalism, a well-known and grisly episode of pioneer history. Given a fresh and intriguing telling here thanks to the supple, readable, and well-researched narrative by Brown (former managing editor, Microsoft Corp.; Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894), Graves's dark tale is engrossing and appalling in equal measure. Never melodramatic or maudlin, Brown's work gracefully balances graphic depictions of extreme privation with humanizing glimpses of the emigrants' everyday hopes and fears. Brown also skillfully weaves relevant historical, cultural, and scientific information into his chronicle, creating a rich and contextualized background. Likely to appeal to true adventure and history fans, who may also like Frank Mullen's The Donner Party Chronicles, this work is strongly recommended for larger public libraries.
Brown (Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, 2006) delivers a skillful, suspenseful study of the Donner Party, narrated from the point of view of a newly married woman. In April 1846, 21-year-old Sarah Graves embarked with her family and new husband, 23-year-old Jay Fosdick, on a wagon-train migration to California from Steuben Township, Ill. Armed with Lansford Warren Hastings's newly published The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, they set out with other families, unaware of how disastrously perilous Hastings's "shortcut" to California-via Wyoming to the south end of the Great Salt Lake and then through the impassable Wasatch Mountains-would prove. Burdened by their heavy loads, the parties moved slowly and faced increasingly dire conditions such as parched land, limited water, deteriorating sanitary conditions, Indian raids on their cattle and indecision regarding which way to go. Snow began falling in late October when they reached the cliffs of the Sierra Nevada. Halted at Truckee Lake, those able to walk-including Graves-were determined to make a pass over the mountains and find help, while the mothers and small children stayed at the lake camp. Starvation, hypothermia and dementia plagued both groups, and at some point the wanderers decided to eat the bodies of the dead, including Graves's father and husband. Some even conspired to kill those still alive, such as the two native Miwok boys who accompanied them. Of the 87 "official members of George Donner's company," 47 died, mostly men. Wading through the many previous accounts of the ill-fated journey, Brown creates a thorough and unique narrative. A moving man-against-nature tragedy that stillresonates today.
"Brown draws from the many previously published accounts of the tragedy. . . . But he tells the tale with a novelist's touch." Boston Globe