James D. Houston,
Snow Mountain Passage
(Knopf, 2001)

The story of the Donner party's ill-fated attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains is firmly etched in historic memory largely due to the means to which some of the settlers resorted in order to survive. It has achieved an almost folkloric status touched with freakish horror. James D. Houston rescues the story from its sensational trappings to recount a tale of courage, strength and survival.

The group of pioneers heading west is initially formed by James Frazier Reed, who had become enamored of Lansford Hastings' The Emigrant's Guide. The wagon train will follow Hastings' southerly route to California. Reed builds an enormous wagon, the Palace Car, for his wife and four children, an action which raises no little resentment in some of the others in their party. The journey is hard, much harder than expected, taking them through the Great Salt Desert. By the time they reach the Humboldt River, oxen have died, food is running low and tempers are frayed to the snapping point.

After an argument with a teamster turns lethal, Reed is banished from the group. He rides across the mountains to Sutter's Fort and secures supplies and horses, planning to take them to the wagon train. But by that time, snow has arrived in the mountains, and Reed must turn back. Meanwhile, the party reaches Truckee Lake and realizes that they must dig in and try to survive the winter; it is too late to get through the pass.

The story of Reed's search for people to help him in his rescue is interspersed by the fictional memories of his daughter Patty, narrated through her 80-plus-year-old perspective. The main narrative is in present tense; Patty's "Trail Notes" is in past tense and she describes baldly the events of that winter of 1846. It is remarkable that anyone survives at all when one takes into account the cold, the snow and the meager food.

Houston uses strong plain language to create vivid, gripping scenes. The stark existence of the camp contrasts with the lush beauty of California, and each intensifies the other. Houston neatly interpolates the historical figures, and his research is meticulous. He lends a humanity to the characters often flattened by history. The suspense is well-maintained with the tension letting up only at the end of the novel.

As for the stories, yes, some of the survivors fed on the bodies of those who died; it was the choice between life and death and they chose to survive. Houston's novel puts this into perspective and does not exploit it. Snow Mountain Passage is a gripping, suspenseful read about a tragic episode in American history.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 23 February 2002

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