For years I’ve waited for a book that delivers an in-depth information on a 19th Century tragedy so great, its memory still dominates California’s pre-Gold Rush era history.
That event was the winter stranding of the Reed Donner Party high in the Sierra Nevada, the year before Gold was discovered by millwright James Marshall on the South Fork of the American River in Columa, CA.
The book “the Indifferent Stars Above; the harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride” provides the greatest insight I’ve yet to find on the Reed Donner tragedy. Its author is Californian Daniel James Brown, most recently the managing editor of Microsoft Books in Redmond, WA.
Brown describes his book on the Reed Donner Party as a “labor of love.” Throughout this book Brown has the uncanny ability to put you footsorely on the trail with the members of that pioneering band as they leave Illinois and make their way some 2,000 mile west to the Sierras Summit near Donner Lake.
Brown’s Indifferent Stars repeatedly demonstrates that great reporting can bring new life to and a fresh perspective to controversial historical events. I was particularly impressed with Brown’s abilities to present his characters in their 19th Century personas and then explain how their actions and behavior were shaped by their time and circumstances.
Brown also provides new insight into a long list of bad choices made by the Reed Donner Party that continued as members of the first major group to escape the icy maws of the Sierra reached the edges of civilization in Bear Valley.
How good is Dan Brown in presenting the issues the Reed and Donner families faced during their ordeal? At times you feel your right there in the cabins with the mothers of all the children, as they used every resource at their disposal to ensure that the youngest members of this wagon train, hung on to life. And as the children passed from starvation, malnutrition and exposure, Brown makes you understand exactly how hard the adults worked to keep them alive.
This is the first book I’ve read that put enough meat on the bones of the Reed Donner Party to show them in the context of their time reacting as best they could to unbelievably adverse conditions. Daniel James Brown goes on my short list of authors whose forthcoming works will be added automatically to my library.—Jim Forbes on 01/26/2010.