Mrs. Jacob Klein has a husband, children, and a warm and comfortable home in California. No one—not even her family—knows how she came to be out West thirteen years ago. Jacob, a kind and patient man, has promised not to ask. But if she were to tell her story, she would recount a tale of tragedy, mishaps, and unthinkable choices—yet also sacrifice, courage, and a powerful, unexpected love . . .
1846: On the outskirts of Cincinnati, wagons gather by the hundreds, readying to head west to California. Among the throng is a fifteen-year-old girl eager to escape her abusive family. With just a few stolen dollars to her name, she enlists as helpmate to a married couple with a young daughter. Their group stays optimistic in the face of the journey’s hazards and delays. Then comes a decision that she is powerless to prevent: Instead of following the wagon train’s established route, the Donner Party will take a shortcut over the Sierras, aiming to clear the mountains before the first snows descend.
In the years since that infamous winter, other survivors have sold their accounts for notoriety and money, lurid tales often filled with half-truths or blatant, gory lies. Now, Mrs. Klein must decide whether to keep those bitter memories secret, or risk destroying the life she has endured so much to build . . .
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There was a special service in church this morning, which was filled to bursting.
Preacher Holden — well now, there is a storyteller. He can tell a Bible story like no one else I ever heard. His tales always seem to start somewhere in the middle, like a traveler who's been set down smack in the middle of a wood. Off he sets on his journey, sometimes looking ahead and sometimes over his shoulder. Soon enough this thing reminds him of that, and that thing recalls another, and Preacher Holden wanders round the highways and byways of his story until, by some mystery known only to him, he arrives back where he began.
His services are well attended, and not just out of a sense of duty, or a fear of being judged wanting by our neighbors. It's because one minute we're thinking how hard the benches are and what we'll be eating for our dinners, and the next, we're right along with Jonah, trapped in that whale's stomach and feeling miserable as all get-out. At the same time we're feeling sorry for the whale with that great undigested lump inside him, hammering and kicking at his insides and wailing to be set free.
If it's the feast for the prodigal son, our mouths water for the smell of the hot butter and cinnamon in Mrs. Jackson's apple turnovers that she's so famous for; or we'll find ourselves sitting beside the happy couple at Cana and quietly wishing for something a bit stronger than water to toast them in.
When he comes to the end of the story, Preacher Holden lets us sit for a minute and digest his words. Then we come to realize that along the way he's managed to set traps for the unwary, adding in sly comments that point to those of us who've sinned somewhat and need a little gentle reminding of it. And he always ends up with a few home truths that catch out those of us that have let our minds wander away.
He had plenty of those today, for it is during his story that the snow begins falling on the other side of the big arched window that we subscribed for last spring. Snow on Christmas Eve! The children are wriggling in their seats, desperate to get outside, and even the older folks who should know better are nudging their neighbors, jerking their heads toward the windows with their eyebrows raised and smiling themselves silly, as if they'd never seen snow before.
Perhaps some of them hadn't, for it almost never snows here. We have a few days of pretty heavy rain through December and January, but other than that, even when it's cold enough to want the fires lit from breakfast onward and an extra quilt or two on the beds, most days give us blue skies and sun. The grass stays green and the crops are good and lush year-round, and the animals fare well.
Our own animals do better than most, for I feed them with a generous hand. They don't amount to much, a few chickens and a goat or two. We don't have cows. I don't like to hear their lowing, a sad and lonely noise to my way of thinking. The rooster crowing, good and loud, and the hens squawking over which has the choicest bit of potato peeling or the last shuck of corn, that's a noise I like to hear.
I wonder if Jacob thought to shut them safely into the henhouse when the snow started up. Once the thought has entered my head I cannot shift it, and I stop listening to the Bible story and think about the snow instead.
Preacher Holden announces the last hymn. It's one of my favorites, "Lord, We Thank Thee for This Day." Bustling up the aisle toward the little upright pianoforte comes Mrs. Holden — his mother, not his wife, for Preacher Holden is a single young man of but eight-and-twenty. He is exceeding handsome, with dark flashing eyes and brown hair curling over his starched white collar, so attendance at his church might not be just on account of his storytelling skills. But he has his eye on Betsey Mueller, a pretty girl of eighteen or so. With three much older sisters all long since married and families of their own, I guess Betsey's arrival was a surprise to her ma, who must have thought herself long since free of the burden of child-rearing. I know the family well. Betsey's father, Heinrich, owns the lumberyard along with my husband, and Heinrich and Jacob were young men together in Germany before they set out to adventure to the New World and pitched up here in California.
Mrs. Holden is a widow, and on the lookout for husband number three, or so they say. She's in an outfit I've not seen before. It's a sober enough shade of blue, in keeping with Preacher Holden's views on appropriate dress for women, but even so, as she rustles past me I hear the distinctive sound of a silk taffeta petticoat. There's a hint of lace at her wrists, too, and some startling green and yellow feathers in her bonnet. She seats herself at the keyboard with a girlish shake of her head that sets her curls dancing — curls that have surely seen the benefit of blacking lotion as well as the curl papers — and a single yellow feather detaches itself from the bonnet and goes floating up into the air.
My close friend Minnie Arbuthnot raises her eyebrows at me from across the aisle. Her mouth twitches, and despite my increasing fears for my poor chickens, mine does the same. Respectable wives and mothers we might be, but when we are together we can't help laughing over any silly thing, just as much as the foolish girls in the schoolroom. I bite my lips together, my shoulders shaking, and look down at the floor until I can control myself.
I've left seven-year-old Hannah and six-year-old Clara at home with Jacob, who has a head cold and needs to stay in the warm. But I have my Meggie to one side of me, and we raise to our feet along with the rest, opening our hymnals. On the other side of me is old Peabody, the owner of the town mercantile, as close with a smile as he is with a cent. He only comes to church as the chance to get warm for nothing. But even Mr. Peabody can't sit when all else are standing, so with a great show of suffering he pulls himself to his feet, disclosing the fact that he has been sitting upon a newspaper. It's one of the local scandal sheets that spreads speculation and tittle-tattle, not a respectable sort of periodical at all.
Mrs. Holden strikes up the opening chords of the hymn. I open my mouth and take a deep breath, ready to sing. Mr. Peabody's newspaper slithers to the floor and my eyes follow it, and I suddenly make sense of the upside-down print of the headline. My mouth stays open but not a sound comes out.
We come out of church to find that the snow has stopped, with the paths and tree branches frosted as thick as a white layer cake. Folks are saying how it looks a right pretty picture, and asking one another if they think it'll stay put for a day or two more. But I have no need to squint up at the flat white sky above us to know that a big storm is on the way. I can smell it and taste it in the air.
I take a firm hold of Meggie's hand, and we set off along the path that will lead us around the back of the church and out of the town. I move at such a pace that the poor child has to fairly run to keep up with me, nodding and smiling at my neighbors as I go and hoping I look sociable enough, but with no desire to stop and pass the time of day. Our headlong flight is checked, though. Preacher Holden emerges from the crowd with his mother on his arm, and I am bidden by good manners to stop in my tracks and bid them Season's Greetings.
In his hand he carries old Peabody's paper. He sees me looking at it and gives a half laugh.
"I see you have noticed — I'm afraid I had reason to reprimand Mr. Peabody for bringing this vulgar gossip-sheet into the Lord's House." He clears his throat. "But I reckon that if anyone is deserving of being in the Lord's presence this day, it is this fine gentleman."
He holds the paper up, to display what had snagged my attention in church: the likeness of a weak-faced man with wispy fine hair, and the headline.
DIED. In Sonoma County, Mr. HENRY EDDY, age 43, late of Mass., a pioneer of 1846, and well known as the heroic rescuer of the "Donner party."
With an effort, I wrench my eyes away from the paper and bring them back to Preacher Holden's face. There is an avid look in his eyes that no amount of piety can conceal. I know what his next words will be before he even opens his mouth.
"And as for that other wretched fellow who accompanied him on his journey — Keseberg — well, he is in sore need of our prayers, that much is certain."
I can make no answer. I mutter something foolish about the snow; then I pick up my skirts and fairly run out of the churchyard, Meggie at my heels, and Preacher and Mrs. Holden openmouthed behind me.CHAPTER 2
I have always believed that I would meet Mr. Eddy again. It would be a day like any other; a blowy day in spring maybe, or the high heat of midsummer. I would be walking along the street in my print frock and bonnet, on my way to the mercantile perhaps, or taking the air with my husband and children on a Sunday afternoon.
And Mr. Eddy would be there.
He would walk toward me, and as he passed by he would look at me something quizzical. His stride might falter some, thinking that perhaps he knew me. He'd tip his hat. He might smile a little. But then he would look again.
In that moment, sick horror would go sliding across his face, and oh! I would fall upon Mr. Eddy! My nails out to claw at his face and my fists ready to knock his teeth down his throat!
My poor husband would have to pull me away in shame, with all the townsfolk watching. Mr. Eddy would turn tail and flee. But no matter how fast he might go flying down the street, my words would go screaming along behind him, "Liar! LIAR! LIAR!"
It is what I have been waiting for, all these years. But I have been cheated. He has died a hero, and been written in the newspapers so; and his lies will live on, immortalized.
Dear God, there is no justice in the world!
If I cannot tell Mr. Eddy what I think of him to his face, then I must use my pen to cut through the twisty tangle of lies that he planted and that have grown up these long years to conceal the truth. Now they will fall away and the straight facts of the matter show through at long last. How I knew Mr. Eddy, and Mr. Keseberg, too; and how Mr. Eddy, carpenter, coffin maker, betrayed us both at the last.
Mr. Eddy's death is not the beginning of my story. It is where my story ends. But with the ending comes the beginning, and my story starts back in Cincinnati, when I was but fifteen. Yes. I may as well start there as anywhere.
My parents were both born in Cincinnati, when it was nothing more than a handful of little farms, with a population of maybe thirty families. It never was a peaceful place. Even then it was known for lawlessness, with the farmers turning their corn crop into moonshine and selling it to the soldiers stationed at Fort Washington. In no more than thirty years, this little hamlet changed beyond recognition, and by the time I was born it was become a city, grown fat on the proceeds of slaughter.
Great herds of pigs, a hundred strong or more, were whipped hourly through the unpaved streets, leaving a thick, stinking trail behind them, and their desperate squealing chorus from the slaughterhouses was in our ears from dawn until dusk. Grindhouses turned teeth, snouts, tusks, tails, and gristle into fertilizer, to be shipped to the South for use on the great cotton plantations. And in every other street in our part of the city were the render-houses where they boiled down the pig fat. Some of this went to the army to grease their bullet casings, and some to the cotton mills of the North to lubricate the spinning and weaving machines. What was left went to the other factories in the city, and the creeks and streams that fed into the mighty Ohio River foamed with the foul- smelling run-off from the dyers, tanners, candle-makers, soapmakers, and the rest. The sky and the streets alike were clotted with the smoking stench from the factory chimneys, a ripe, greasy fog that clung to everything it touched; and the black smoke of the steamers churning their way up and down the river all the livelong day contributed to the choking miasma that filled our lungs and stung our eyes.
Cincinnati was a rich city, with money streaming in just as fast as the hog meat was shipped out. For the factory owners living in their grand mansions in the leafy airiness of Auburn Hill, I daresay it was a splendid life. But my life was not. For the life I was born into was a hard one, and a brutal one.
I had two brothers a couple of years younger than me, and then a whole parcel of snot-nosed, grizzling little sisters. With them and Ma and Pa, there were ten of us in two rooms. We dealt with one another with a cruel, low cunning, using fists and teeth without a second thought, if it meant a rag to sleep under for the night or some scrap of food.
We lived close by the river, in the stench and filth of fish heads and pig muck and rotting vegetables and with the scutter and mess of immigrants all piled in on top of one another, with virtually no sanitation and no common language. Most of the men worked the wharves, loading and unloading the great steamboats. They spent their nights in the alehouse, and were always with an eye to the main chance, wanting to make as much cash as they could by doing as little work as possible. Most of the women made a living selling themselves in some alleyway. My parents were the same, with thievery and whoring their trades when they were sober enough. I was no different. Other girls my age were apprenticed out as milliners, or worked from dawn to midnight in the factories, but I had mastered the easier art of coin-from-pocket at an early age. And now it seemed it was time for the whoring.
Late one night in early spring, Pa staggered home with a man who stank of the drink, and had a sly, sideways look to him. He was dressed real sharp, with a fancy hat and waistcoat. I reckon he was a passenger on one of the steamboats come ashore for a night of low roistering, and had fallen in with my pa on his way.
Pa shouted me downstairs, and told me that now I was grown enough, I could earn my keep. He sent me into the privy outhouse, no more than a rotting shack that we shared with half a dozen other families, with this man. He was drunk, right enough, but it didn't stop him being lustful. As soon as he had shut the door behind us, he was fumbling in his pants with one hand and grabbing at my hair with the other, forcing me to my knees.
I knelt in front of him, shaking all over. I was right sickened to do it, and too afraid not to. This moment's hesitation was enough to make him land me a sharp crack across the ear. That decided me; I leapt to my feet and gave him an almighty shove. He staggered back, and lost his balance, catching his head on the wooden door where a big nail stuck out hung with scraps of paper, and then he fell down in a heap across the privy.
I pressed myself back against the wall, fearful for what I had done. I thought that any minute he would rise to his feet and land me one before carrying on what he had started. Worse, he'd tell Pa. I didn't want to think what Pa would do to me. It wouldn't be just his fists, it would be his buckle-belt at least. My back was already crisscrossed with scars; the last time he'd thrashed me it had been days before I could stir from my bed. But the man didn't move, not a twitch. After a while I reached out my foot and kicked at his leg.
"Mister. Hey, Mister. Wake up."
There was no reply, not even a groan or a sigh. His eyes were half-open, gazing milky up at the roof, and a little trickle of blood slid across his forehead. I stood there, staring down at him, dreading the thought of Pa coming to see what we were about. And then I had the sudden thought that perhaps he was dead. If so, Pa's buckle-belt was the least of my worries.
A great rush of fear made me spring away from the door. Without a second's thought I set to rummage through the man's clothing to see what he had about him. In his pants pocket I found some coin, and in his waistcoat pocket a silver watch on a heavy chain. Then I legged out of there as fast as I could run, out of the privy outhouse, out of our street, and out into the maze of alleyways that led down to the river.
It was getting on toward dawn, and a cold gray mist was rolling in off the water. Most of the night's revelers were gone, so the streets were as quiet as ever they got. There was a drunkard spewing up his guts in a doorway, and two women passed me, one with an eye that was beginning to black up and blood on her bodice, her friend holding her up as she wept her way along the street. Other than that I saw no one, and no one spoke to me. I ran as fast as I could through the narrow alleyways that led to the water's edge.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "When Winter Comes"
Copyright © 2018 V.A. Shannon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have in the past read stories about the Donner party, and the horrific end to these people, but the author puts faces to theses travelers. All the while reading this it made me think of what we really take for granted. At the very beginning we see that Mrs. Klein is in California, but we travel in her shoes, from the beginning of this book as a fifteen-year-old in Cincinnati Ohio and how she ends up on the wagon train, to her being married, a school teacher, a mom and wife. Just like the old whispered game of telephone, how a story gets twisted, and how you know the actual facts, having been there, and how frustrating it must have been to see the truth twisted. This book became a page-turner, and knowing part of the ending still kept me interested, and I was surely not disappointed. I received this book through Net Galley and the Publisher Kensington Books, and was not required to give a positive review.
I never thought I'd choose to read a book about the Donner Party but my love of history and historical fiction had me signing up for an ARC of When Winter Comes from NetGalley. I understand that it is a work a fiction meant to make one think about a moment of American history that in our time has become more of a punchline than the cautionary tale and analysis of human nature and the will to survive that it should be. No one will ever know exactly what happened because like everyone, the survivors have their own demons, coping methods, and prejudices that skew the retellings but Shannon's descriptive writing puts the reader on that mountain with the pioneers. I found, at times, that it moved slowly but then so did the journey and other times I was simply loath to read on, knowing what was coming but unsure of how descriptive the crucial passages would be. When Winter Comes is a good, interesting read even if the main character, as likable as she is, is just a bit blah.
The Donner party is seeing a revival, this is the second book in the last two months that I have read that has been about this fateful tale. I absolutely loved the heart behind this story. The author's voice is incredible and she weaves a tale that is incredible and tragic. Intense details transport you to the devastating, wintry landscape. Characters fully form in your imagination and become people with whom you feel you can engage. The way in which the main character tells the tale is unique and insightful. Her point-of-view was refreshing, neither self-pitying or boastful, just honest and real with a hint of darkness. Good historical fiction begs you to read more about the events it details, and this story definitely has made me want to check out every resource available to read about this devastating and grisly adventure.
This is a historical novel that tells the story of a girl who runs away from her abusive family in Cincinnati, and joins a group of settlers who are traveling across the country to settle in California. Among the members of this group is a family called Donner; this is a story of the tragic events leading to the story of the "Donner Party," where a group of settlers were trapped by snowfall before crossing the mountains into California. They had limited supplies, were unable to find another source of food, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the dead in order to survive. This is a well-told story of this girl's experience traveling with the settlers. It is told from her point of view as an adult woman, with flashbacks to her thoughts and experiences while traveling. Her limited understanding of the interactions between the adults in the group was believable, and her particular connection to the family whose patriarch is often treated as the antagonist of the story was well written and convincing. In fact this book reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books ever, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, and that is high praise for me. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historic novels of the period. I received an advanced reading copy from the publishers via NetGalley. Thanks!