The Indifferent Stars Above

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In April of 1846, Sarah Graves was twenty-one and in love with a young man who played the violin. But she was torn. Her mother, father, and eight siblings were about to disappear over the western horizon forever, bound for California. Sarah could not bear to see them go out of her life, and so days before the planned departure she married the young man with the violin, and the two of them threw their lot in with the rest of Sarah's family. On April 12, they rolled out of the yard of their homestead in three ox-drawn wagons.

Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, Sarah and her family arrived at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. After a series of desperate attempts to cross the mountains, the party improvised cabins and slaughtered what remained of their emaciated livestock. By early December they were beginning to starve.

Sarah's father, a Vermonter, was the only member of the party familiar with snowshoes. Under his instruction, fifteen sets of snowshoes were hastily constructed from oxbows and rawhide, and on December 15, Sarah and fourteen other relatively young, healthy people set out for California on foot, hoping to get relief for the others. Over the next thirty-two days they endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, Daniel James Brown takes the reader along on every painful footstep of Sarah's journey. Along the way, he weaves into the story revealing insights garnered from a variety of modern scientific perspectives-psychology, physiology, forensics, and archaeology-producing a tale that is not only spell-binding but richly informative.

Customer Reviews:

  • Updated view of the Donner Party
    The story of the Donner party is one that we take for granted. Most of us have heard about it all our lives, or so it seems. So when a new book came out regarding the story, I thought how much more mileage can there be in this old tale of cannibalism. Reading this book I was pleasantly surprised. This book follows one individual who survived, Sarah Graves, from Illinois to California on that fateful trip. But this book is much more than the survival story. The author, Daniel James Brown, goes into the complete story of the trip from Illinois, covering each phase of the trip, giving detailed descriptions of what travel in the 1840's was like. Many issues regarding psychology, physiology and history are brought out in detailed coverage of their journey and tragedy. I gained a much more complete understanding of the events I had taken for granted for so many years. I highly recommend this book for those interested in new look at this true life drama....more info
  • Brilliant historical storytelling
    This book is a triumph: it's rare to find a painstakingly-researched history that is also a brilliantly written story -- one that reads like the best kind of page-turner novel.

    Like all good stories, it has a strong central character, the 22-year-old recently married Sarah Graves. Traveling with her parents and farm hands, they set out from Illinois for the promised land of California using the travel guide of its time -- unfortunately, one written by a shyster and fraud.

    The author delivers an engaging story that brings to life the dry facts and accounts of the Donner party's progress by fleshing out the characters, and blending in his own experience following the route. The American landscape also has a starring role in this tale. And when it comes to the deprivations of hypothermia and hunger, he explains the underlying physiology and psychology based on modern research.

    The author also makes it clear how a cascading series of bad decisions led to the human disaster in the California Sierras, and examines the causes -- a classic case of commitment escalation. These include setting off three weeks late and choosing a new untried path through the Wasatch mountains. Had any one of these many decisions gone a different way, disaster would most likely have been averted.

    I was riveted by the narrative and found it fascinating, harrowing and illuminating. It reminded me in terms of its engaging-yet-factual approach of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage)...more info
  • Thank you, Mr. Brown
    I have read every book I know about on the Donner Party, but this one is exceptional. Mr. Brown's story is not focused primarily on the Donner family and he makes a familiar story entirely new. The book is beautifully written, every page suggesting the author's heartfelt compassion and admiration for this group of people, most of whom lost their lives valiantly trying to triumph over adversities which at this point in time most of can barely believe, even when they are so powerfully described.

    The remarkable characteristic of these westward-bound men and women is their bravery. Many Americans today live in fear of terrorism, disease, devastating weather phenomena, etc. Those who headed west over the Great Salt Lake and started late in the season over the Sierra Nevada knew they were facing danger and hardship of an unimaginable degree. But even in extremis, surrounded by 20 or more feet of snow and without heat or nourishment, their creativity and their will to survive was miraculous, their general willingness to try to care for each other indomitable.

    Cannibalism has too often overshadowed many of the other dramatic human elements of this story. Mr. Brown puts that issue into perspective when he describes someone heating and ingesting leather shoelaces. Could there be a more powerful definition of starvation?

    It's just such nuggets that make this history a gold mine of new information, a suspense story of the most riveting kind, and a thrilling portrait of the human spirit, painted with words by a very gifted artist....more info
  • heroes of hope
    Sarah Graves was only 21 years old when she married Jay Fosdick on April 2, 1846. Ten days later, on April 12, she left her home in Illinois with her husband and family of thirteen people and joined about two thousand other emigrants who traveled that spring and summer to California. Brown reconstructs this famous story primarily through the eyes of young Sarah Graves and her family. It would be almost exactly one year later when on April 17, 1847 the last of four "Relief Parties" reached a lone survivor.

    The Graves party joined with George and Tamzene Donner, along with James and Margaret Reed, who left Independence, Missouri with a group of fifty wagons and 150 adults on May 12. Loaded with children, livestock and provisions, and lumbering along at two miles an hour, the two thousand mile trip took about six months. After they crossed the Continental Divide, and turned left to take the Hastings Cutoff ("an untried shortcut through unknown wilderness"), instead of the tried and true path to the right, the travelers became known as the Donner Party. This fatal mistake cost them an extra month of travel time and virtually assured that the Donner Party would meet disaster in the snowy Sierras.

    There was nothing remarkable about the Donner Party's sojourn to California (which at the time still belonged to Mexico). The first wagon train west left in 1841; they were merely part of an massive migration over the next two decades that saw 250,000 people cross the continent. The outcome of their trip, though, and the sensationalist reporting about it, make them some of the most famous and carefully studied of the early pioneers. Only a mile or two from summitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range onto a downward slope just 100 miles from their destination, a ferocious November snow storm buried them in a frigid prison.

    Thanks to the diaries, journals, letters, and (conflicting) memories of the survivors, and later work by historians and archaeologists, today we have a good idea of exactly what happened. Eighty-seven people were trapped for four months in snows up to twenty feet deep, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Forty-five people survived because of their decision to eat their dogs, boiled rawhide, and even their own dead, and thanks to the bravery of four separate rescue parties. Initial reports caricatured the Donner Party as ghouls because of their cannibalism, or dupes due to their poor choices and lack of experience. Brown rejects these interpretations; in his empathetic retelling, these were ordinary people who were heroic in the sense that they chose hope and the will to survive over "the indifferent stars above" (from a poem by Yeats). Today a national historical landmark, state park, memorials, towns, and a lake all commemorate this survival adventure with the Donner name. Interested readers will also enjoy the recently released Desperate Passage (2008) about the Donner tragedy. ...more info
  • Horror and Heroism on the California Trail
    Virtually everyone is familiar with the Donner party, the wagon train that was snowed in over the winter of 1846-1847 in the mountains in eastern California as it made its way to the rich lands of the San Francisco Bay area. Reduced to cannibalism to survive, the experiences of the overlanders served as an object lesson for so much that we Americans think important about our national experience. It bespeaks hardship and disaster, but also perseverance and commitment to the task at hand. It also exemplifies some negatives: ruinous pride, greed, and brutality.

    So why do we need another book on the Donner party? In part, it is a timeless tale that never ceases to engage. But more than that, Daniel James Brown has taken a new slant on this well-worn subject. He focuses on the experience of newlyweds Sarah Graves and Jay Fosdick, and follows them as they seek the promise of a new and presumably better life in California. Communicating through the experiences of Sarah Graves, more than any other, Brown brings the harrowing tale to life as I have never seen before. It is a captivating book, reading like a mystery even though we all know how it is going to end. This is a compelling read and one that deserves serious consideration by anyone interested in this subject....more info
  • Fascinating, suspenseful, heartwretching
    I love reading nonfiction and especially history and this book is the reason why. I was spellbound from the start, learning about Sarah Graves and why she decided to go on this fateful journey.

    Daniel James Brown did an incredible job researching this book. He is not a historian, but a writer and yet what he accomplished here equals the works of the likes such as James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." In this book about the doomed Donner Party, we not only learn about what happened in the Sierra Nevadas that winter of late 1946, but we also learn of what all emigrants endured traversing the wide open plains, fighting with raiding Native Americans, dealing with Puritan taboos and coping with lack of water, food and morale. One finishes the book admirning all those children and grandchildren of the Revolutionary War who braved all elements to settle the Pacific Northwest.

    Daniel Brown researched every minute detail, creating a very believable account of everything Sarah and her party experienced along the way. But this isn't just about Sarah Graves, but also about the deceitful tactics of frontier "adventurers" who scammed emigrants for money and lured them into as-yet unexplored canyons, passes and terrain. Conniving men such as Lansford Hastings, the developer of the same-named Cutoff that took emigrants "taking the left turn" into California while others taking the "right turn" continued on into Oregon, was one such profiled men. He also authored the then-popular "The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California," a guidebook that lured many fresh immigrants to travel from the East Coast far away to the West Coast. Many of these immigrants could barely speak English. And even fewer still returned to their homesteads back East.

    What turned out to be a cut-off was actually an extension of a few hundred miles. Distances across the Salt Desert of Utah was not 40 miles like at first mentioned to the tiring emigrants, but more than double that. How anyone could survive such horror today is questionable.

    Other scammers include James Reed, who eventually became one of the relief party organizers after his successful crossing of the highest peaks. But he was never able to regain the trust and admiration of those who had followed him from the start back in Kansas.

    This book reads like a suspense novel. Most readers already know how the story ends, but what is new are all the minute details Daniel Brown collected to make this story come back to life, from the struggles with strangers and the harsher struggles with Mother Nature who never seemed to give the emigrants a break, to the struggles the burdened oxen had to survive. Children often did not survive the weather, the tramplings of the animals, or even surviving the nights on the open range.

    The author details the daily chores along the emigrant trail: what the women discussed while preparing the daily camp meals, to what the men dreamed of when they would arrive at their new homes. We learn in great detail the varied wild plants used along the way to treat headaches, menstrual cramps, cuts and sores, and indegestion.

    Well researched and writetn, "The Indifferent Stars Above" gives a very human face to all those in the Donner-Reed Party. One can not fault anyone for leaving the Midwest and seeking riches Out West. One cheers those who survived this horried incident, one boos those who caused this all to happen, one fears the inevitable high in the mountains when decisions of who would live and who would die next are decided. In the end it was no one person's fault but a combination of bad timing, bad weather and very bad luck. ...more info
  • A well-written and engaging book on the experiences of the Donner Party
    It's an entertaining and fascinating read that seems well researched in addition to well written. However, Sarah Graves Fosdick around whom the book is centered, wrote little about her experiences, so there's a LOT of conjecture in here. Maybe it's all well thought through, but it still seems a touch suspect. Here's a compelling, albeit minor, figure in the Donner story but she didn't write much about it, so what of her part of the story can we really trust?

    Put aside the lingering doubts as to the details of her experience, and the book reads exceptionally well, really bringing the story to life in a very personal way....more info
  • Reads like a novel
    This is a fascinating read, even though it is sometimes emotionally difficult to read because of the topic. The author has done an amazing amount of research which adds to the drama. His choice of one person to follow through the ordeal makes it read like a novel. I especially liked that he put things into historical context throughout the book and when deemed important, he fills the reader in on what was going on elsewhere in the country. It is a compelling read, for sure!...more info
  • History as it should be told.
    I was immediately drawn into this story because the author told us right away that he was not going to treat this the way history is typically treated. Rather than a dry recitation of facts, he went for the true feeling and hardships of the individuals. He walked the walk - going to the actual places and studying the actual conditions - in order to give accurate accounts of what they must have endured. I did not realize how many survived the ordeal and while I was saddened at the losses they experienced, I was glad to know that some of them made it out and went on to better lives....more info
  • Not For the Faint of Heart
    Graphic, vivid, disturbing, heart-rending, "The Indifferent Stars Above" is the kind of history book that you may read once in your life, but never twice. Overall the book is well-written, with outstanding research. It delves into an extremely dark corner of history--the ill fated journey of the Donner Party. I actually grew up within a half a mile of one of the trail spurs of the Donner party, where there is still a residential street called "Donner Way," but had only heard in whispers the rumor of the dark suffering endured by the poor souls. To read in sharp detail the tale of the suffering of these people, including accounts of the deaths and suffering of little children, was heart breaking. This book is not everyone's cup of tea....more info
  • A wonderful, informative, and gripping history
    In The Indifferent Stars Above, Daniel James Brown has undertaken a wonderful new look at the ultimate American cautionary tale - the Donner Party. Brown gives this history a human face by focusing on the experiences of young Sarah Graves, newly married when her family set out for California. Brown is a thorough historian, and also incorporates new research into survival psychology and the physical effects of hunger to give the reader a better understanding and perspective of just what Sarah and those around her faced as they struggled to survive in the snowy Sierras. ...more info
  • Riveting tale of historical heartbreak and horror. A must read.
    It's not often that a history book will compel me to set all my novels aside, but "The Indifferent Stars Above" certainly did. Within the first few pages I was spellbound. I had to know how Sarah, a young woman newly married to her childhood sweetheart, would end up on top of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the dead of winter, starving and forced to do unspeakable things in order to survive.

    "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride" tells the story of the Donner Party from the perspective of newlyweds Sarah Graves and Jay Fosdick. In April of 1846 the couple joined Sarah's family as they journeyed west from Illinois to the promised land of California. After falling behind schedule they joined a wagon train led by George Donner, hoping to make up for lost time by attempting a "shortcut" across the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert. But this route took three weeks longer than the customary way, and when they reached the Sierra Nevada at the end of October a snowstorm blocked their way through what is now called Donner Pass. What followed was a harrowing tale of heartbreak and horror. Many members of the party eventually resorted to cannibalism.

    Author Daniel James Brown does a remarkable job of weaving historical evidence with modern science, creating a riveting tale that reads more like a novel than a work of history. He goes into remarkable detail, explaining everything from the strain of malaria that Sarah's family suffered from in Illinois, to the different kinds of flour available to emigrant families as they stocked up for their journey. Until I read this book I hadn't understood the exact ways in which hypothermia acts upon the body, or realized that hyperthermia (overheating) was a common condition when struggling through 12 feet of snow. Brown's descriptions of the trials people endured while trying to reach California are vivid:

    "In places they resorted to using a windlass to drag wagons... up steep slopes. At a place called Devils Gate, the rope hoisting one of the wagons broke near the windlass. Men rushed to support the wagon, grabbing at the spokes of the wheels and the planked sides, trying to hold it against the pull of gravity. But gravity won. The oxen bellowed and pawed frantically but futilely at the loose talus on the slope. They began to lose ground. The wagon accelerated, sliding down the slope, dragging the wide-eyed and still bellowing oxen with it. The men had to jump free of the rig to save their lives. Then it hurtled over a precipice at the bottom of the slope, pulling the oxen over the edge two by two."

    Later, as the emigrants struggled to survive in the frozen Alder Creek Valley, Brown describes their situation thus:

    "They began to grow gaunt. Their eyes began to sink deeper into their faces. Their fingers grew boney.... And as all these transformations took place, they began to peer into one another's increasingly angular faces with a growing sense of alarm and incredulity."

    Poetic, haunting and deeply informative "The Indifferent Stars Above" brings history to life, taking you step-by-step through the physiological and psychological conditions that eventually caused once-civilized people to draw lots in order to see who would become dinner. This book is a must read....more info
  • Gets to the Juicy Marrow -- Excellent analysis, Interesting Read
    I just finished THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: THE HARROWING SAGA OF A DONNER PARTY BRIDE by Daniel James Brown and quite liked it. With a title that includes the words 'harrowing' and 'bride' you can never tell what you'll get. The book could be some awful bit of fluffy pseudo-history, or it could contrarily be overly academic and dry as bones that have been cracked open for their juicy marrow and then boiled too many times... oops, sorry.

    In fact, THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE is a very well balanced and intelligent book that takes a multidisciplinary approach to the subject. Brown provides a detailed timeline of events, taking time to analyze the physiological and psychological changes that the emigrants must have been experiencing. Bringing in data from Starvation studies as well as Post Traumatic Stress disorder, he makes intelligent arguments for why the Reeds, Donners, and Breens,, made the discisions they did. In addition, he points out similarities to more recent incidents where individuals have faced tough choices.

    Brown is an excellent writer and certainly knows his territory and history. The book is a good, informative read, but dense as by nature the author must lead us through a trail of details and sequences.

    Pam T~
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  • Couldn't put it down
    Amazing and definitively "harrowing", (as it says on the cover) true story of a particular young woman in the Donner party, which got stranded in the snow of the Sierra Nevada as they were pioneering to California in 1846, some of whom resorted to cannibalism to save themselves and/or their families. The author tells the tale in an extremely captivating way, his research seems very thorough and accurate, and he is compassionate toward his subject without being sappy. One of the most moving books I've ever read....more info
  • A History That Didn't Quite come To Life
    I found The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown frustrating because I wanted it to be better than it was. The book is billed as "The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride," and is the story of the ill fated group of pioneers who took a "shortcut" while on the western passage to California and ended up stranded through the winter in the Sierra Nevada. At the beginning of the book, the author says he chose to make Sarah Graves Fosdick the focal point of his story because his great uncle had met her.

    However, Sarah, herself, left little record of her own experiences whereas other members of the Donner party left quite detailed accounts of the journey. Since there is no written record from Sarah, the author is forced to speculate about her physical and emotional feelings throughout as members of the party suffer starvation and die, one by one while the remaining members are forced to eat the flesh of those who have died.

    And that's where my frustration about the book comes in as far too often the book reads like a laundry list of who is still alive, who has died, and where everyone is. Since Sarah left no written records of her experiences, we can't have the backdrop of her words to describe the events, which leaves me to wonder why the author didn't choose someone else to focus this story on, someone whose words could be used to fill in the lines.

    The author does weave in lots of information about life on the Oregon Trail and life in general in the 1840's in America, which on its own was quite interesting. He also brought in such modern concepts as post traumatic stress disorder and scientific research on the effects of starvation to provide some realism and to give a context for what members of the party experienced. As a study of a time and event in history, the book is quite interesting, but people who read it expecting to get into the heart and mind of Sarah Graves Fosdick will likely be disappointed. I was.
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  • ------Well Researched Story of the 1846-1847 Donner party------
    THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE begins with author, Daniel James Brown explaining why he became interested in the very tragic story of the Donner party. He then goes into a great deal of history of the United States during that time period and why so many people left their homes and took the risk of a more than 1000 mile trip across the plains and mountains. The author also provides the background of many of the families that traveled on that ill favored wagon train. More than 80 people began that journey.

    Mr. Brown decided to focus on one person in the Donner party and he decided on Sarah Graves Fosdick. She was the 21 year old bride of Jay Fosdick. The couple married just before their journey. Her parents and siblings were also in the group headed for a wonderful life in California. Mr. Brown offers a lot of information about what life was like living and traveling in a wagon train. Perhaps Sarah and Jay, slept under the stars and planned their life together. These were all strong people, used to hard work and when water was sparse, the young couple and anyone able, would have walked to save the oxen from pulling extra weight. The different prairie birds that the travelers would have seen were described as were the various animals. When grass became less and less abundant, the travelers would have noticed and been worried that the oxen and horses would not have food. Mr. Brown writes, " Increasingly, the emigrants' worries and arguments concerned grass. Grass was the gasoline of the mid-nineteenth century. It fueled the engines that propelled them forward, their oxen."

    Most of the people in this story were true heroes and yes there were also some scoundrels! The person that I found to be one of the most despicable was Langsford Warren Hastings. He was the author of a book called THE EMIGRANTS' GUIDE. This was a book extolling the beauty and greatness of California and Oregon. Oregon, by far, was closer and a lot of settlers had felt that was far enough to travel. However, the book also mentions a short cut to California, which Hastings wrote about, but had never taken. It took the settlers through mountain ranges where few, except for trappers and a small military expedition had ever gone before and they had no oxen, wagons or baggage to carry as did the Donner party. Mr. Hastings had a financial arrangement that could make him a fortune if he could entice people to California and then on to a place which would be called Suttersville. The immigrants trudged along and the dead, that they buried along the trail west, were their children and traveling companions.

    The Donner party went through deserts with little water and often lack of enough food to keep them rational and fortified. They had already left a trail of bodies of their family members and friends who died before they even came to their final defeat in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. More than a few of the details in this story are very difficult to read, but the author simply gave the facts and I tried my best not to dwell on the horrible details of the cannibalism of the dead that took place. The author explained the effects of starvation on the mind and body and I don't think that we can even began to understand their state of distress and confusion and maybe even the madness that they experienced.

    This story will remain with me, maybe forever. Daniel James Brown has done a service to history, to the Donner party and to their descendents. His research has offered up a riveting tale of an American struggle to survive.

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  • Daniel James Brown does it again!
    "To look upon these sad monuments harrows up every sympathy of the heart & soul, & you almost hold your breath to listen for some mournful sound from these blackened, dismal, funeral piles, telling you of their many sufferings & calling on you for bread, bread."

    Daniel James Brown has had some fascinating relatives! Brown's great-uncle traveled with the Donner party on their journey west for a length of time before they parted ways (and his great-uncle's party fortunately chose a different route.) Brown's first book, "Under a Flaming Sky", was written about the Great Hinckley Fire and included his grandfather who had survived the ordeal. My own great-grandfather settled in the Hinckley area in 1894, immediately following the fire, looking for inexpensive land to purchase. That book was purchased by my father, who still lives on the original homestead, for me to read. I couldn't put it down! Now, it is my turn to give a copy of The Indifferent Stars Above to my father, and return the favour.

    Daniel James Brown's "The Indifferent Stars Above" is an incredible telling of the Donner Party's journey west in 1847. Though many of the Amazon reviewers have already covered much of the material and there is no need for redundancy, I wish to simply add that Brown has an incredible talent for taking musty, old facts about people long gone and making them into fully realized and riveting characters in extraordinary circumstances. His narrative is lush and expressive, giving a true sense of place and time. Just as it was with "Under a Flaming Sky", I could not put this book down. Thank you, Mr. Brown, for another impeccably researched, passionately told story!
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  • A deep inside look at a member of the Donner Party.
    The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party is an excellent read. I'm a real history buff and I'm very impressed with this book. I read a few books about the Donner Party but this one has to be the best so far. I really enjoyed the research the writer did on the background of the members of the party and the personnel struggles they all went through just to prepare for the trip. The trip itself was a nightmare but nothing could be as hellish as the winter they spent trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The means they did to survive still strikes terror in the hearts of people. Even today when people think about winter survival they talk about the Donner Party. I thought their was all that could be told about the party. I guess I was wrong. I highly recommend this book....more info
  • Great Historical Storytelling
    History gets a bad rap; too dry, too slow, too boring. Too many dates, too many characters, too much dull information. Daniel James Brown has managed to avoid these pitfalls. With his many interesting character sketches of multiple Donner party members, with the pivotal character being that of 21 year old Sarah Graves Fosdick, Brown has crafted an ever compelling tale of those doomed emigrants.

    Brown also engages the 21st century reader by explaining how these very tough people (all were hard working physically and mostly very fit) from the oldest to the youngest among them, were still doomed from the start when it came to their misunderstandings about illness, nutrition and extreme weather situations. They walked hundreds of miles to spare their oxen and horses from the extra load and loved their children as much as we do today, doing almost anything to save them. Most Americans today cannot possibly understand the kind of labor they performed simply on a daily basis and the kind of caloric intake it would take to keep these folks going with their hard and muscle laden bodies. Brown does a fantastic job of explaining that huge difference, and also explaining many of the emotional and physical stresses these people faced during and after their journey to hell.

    They trustingly followed a path by someone who just wanted to make a buck and ended up sacrificing their children to the desire to reach the land of milk and honey that they believed awaited them in California. What drove them to cannibalize (and possibly murder) fellow travelers is what makes the story so fascinating, and Brown does an excellent job weaving that tale. He follows the aftermath of the situation as well, telling us of the struggles faced by the families and individuals who survived the horrors that they faced in the Sierra Nevadas.

    I highly recommend this book.

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  • Comprehensive, Riveting Account of the Donner Party and What Happened
    I was aware of the bare basics of the Donner Party story. The Indifferent Stars Above is a thought-provoking, comprehensive account of the folks involved in the aptly-described harrowing saga which centers around Sarah Graves, young bride of Jay Fosdick. Sarah's family, with father Franklin Graves, her mother, and eight siblings, pack up to leave their Illinois farm and head west. Sarah's fiancee, Jay, and she marry and the newlyweds join the wagon-train for California. Non-fiction, this book reads like a novel as the author, Daniel James Brown, takes the reader along the trail with the wagon trains and their occupants as they make their way across the mid-west plans. Brown has done an amazing amount of research which clearly shows in the detail of the story.

    The Graves family ultimately joins up with the Donner Party wagon train, and they take what turns out to be very poor advice to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846; there is not an established trail or 'short cut' which wagons can readily use and they would find scoundrels and rogues among their own parties as well as Indians, wildlife and, ultimately, their worst enemy--the blizzards of 1846. Brown uses a variety of sources--from original records, newspapers, and books from the 1800's, as well as weather trends and historical context--to charter the path taken by the pioneer families involved. The author does an excellent job of making the folks involved 'real' individuals and it gives the reader a personal sense of the actions and emotions involved as the various families are stranded, foodless and with little shelter, snowbound in the mountains.

    The accounts of the ensuing reluctant cannibalism are detailed without being excessively gory. Those of us with a vivid imagination are likely glad of that!

    The only thing I would have liked to have seen detailed at the end was a more complete overview of the reaction of the public as the details began to emerge about what happened out there in the winter of 1846. I wondered how much was made of the event at the time and whether the survivors were ostracized or blamed for their actions. Perhaps my curiosity is piqued because of the way any event in today's news is dissected on the airwaves and internet.

    Brown has done a superb job in examining the series of events which culminated in the Donner Party tragedy, exploring the personalities and motives (in some cases) of the participants, and creating a solid, fascinating and plausible story which often reads like a gripping novel. He also cites extensive detail in the chapter notes and gives credit to the many researchers whose work he has drawn upon for this book. A well-done, highly readable and thought-provoking look at a chapter in America's history. ...more info
  • Highly Interesting and Well-Researched
    The Donner Party incident has, over the century and a half since it was first publicized, become a part of the shared American history mythos. Unfortunately, it has also suffered from its notoriety - reduced to a sad tale at best and a punch line at worst. Like most people, I knew almost nothing of the tragedy itself when I picked up this book. I only knew the barest of facts - a group of wagon trainers caught in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains during brutal winter conditions who resorted to cannibalism to survive. As with all well-known historical episodes, however, there was, and is, much more to the story.

    Instead of trying to focus on as many party members as possible, Daniel James Brown instead centers his narrative of the tragedy around one survivor, newlywed Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was only 21 when she set out with her husband and family on the journey. Through Sarah's eyes, Brown is able to then illuminate the other victims much as another human being would, instead of relegating them to a catalogue of facts.

    The best history books transform their subjects from unknowable objects into what history truly is about - real people who dealt with monumental circumstances. Brown's writing is superb, not only for having achieved this goal but for the way he brings us into what it meant to be alive in 1846. His research encompasses not only the Donner Party itself, but the social and economic forces which spurred the great American migration westward, along with practical and relevant knowledge about everyday life in the middle of the nineteenth century. All of these factors played a part in the choices these people made, and how those choices ultimately spelled their doom.

    Daniel James Brown has written a seminal work on the history of the Donner Party incident. Anyone interested in this tragic, wholly American story would do well to read it.
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  • very interesting, well written
    This book was a pleasure to read. It tells the story of the Donner Party, tracing their travels from the starting point in Illinois to the end point in California. There are many things that are nice about this book... one is that it really gives a sense of the extreme difficulties of the journey, and the complexities of what the trip entailed. It also delved into the greed that influenced some of the decisions leading to the tragedy that befall the party.

    The book explores the personalities and experiences of the members of the trip, to the extent that it is possible for a historical non-fiction work, and with that makes the events that befell the party that much more personal. You really get a sense of what life must have been like for the members of the party. It also goes beyond the tragic events, and extends to what happened to the survivors afterwards.

    Altogether, a good and very interesting read, and I certainly came away knowing a lot more about a subject I only had cursory knowledge of, and with it, a lot more about the experiences of those who emigrated across America to settle in the West....more info
  • Magnificient!
    This history of the (in)famous Donner party alternately reads like a thriller, a horror story, a nature study and pure poetry. Author Daniel James Brown really did his homework, actually tracing the route taken by a young woman named Sarah Graves Fosdick as she trekked across the American West with her new husband, seeking a homestead in California.

    Taken in by an opportunist named Lansford Hastings, who wanted to make a name for himself (not to mention some quick cash) by routing Westward-heading emigrants through what he called his "shortcut," the several families of the Donner party made a fateful decision to heed Hastings' advice and follow his unproven route through the Sierra Nevada mountains. This was, as history shows, their undoing, as they became stranded throughout the winter in 20+ feet of snow, with no food and minimal shelter.

    After several failed attempts, Sarah Graves and some of her companions managed to escape through what is now called the Donner Pass, but not until many members of the party had died and the survivors had been reduced to cannibalizing the bodies of their relatives and friends.

    Brown relates the whole story, beginning with the departure of Sarah and her family from their home in Illinois through her death at the age of 46 in what is now known as California's Napa Valley. In doing so, he writes with sensitivity and compassion, inviting readers to imagine both Sarah's joy during the first half of her journey and the deep grief she must have felt throughout the remainder of her life once she finally reached California. At no point does Brown stoop to judging the people whose story he relates, nor does he sugar-coat the events of their tragic situation. Thus, some portions of the book are difficult to read, but for me the revulsion I occasionally felt was worth the reward of coming to a better understanding of the grit and heroism displayed by our ancestors who crossed the continent at a time when life on the road often meant living the equivalent of a stone age existence.

    I admire the fact that Brown himself visited places along Sarah's route, walking through chest-high prairie grass (loaded with ticks), climbing a "slope" in the Wasatch Mountains (7,500 feet above sea level) and slogging a mile across Utah's salt flats ("My God, I thought, those people were tough!")

    Brown writes beautifully and portions of the book read like poetry. Take, for example, this passage -- "To really understand [Sarah's] story, I knew I would have to travel farther than just the sixteen hundred miles that lay between me and California. I would have to travel into the heart of a girl who was a product of a vanished world...a girl who encountered in her life challenges more daunting and tragedies more profound than I have ever begun to confront in my own."

    And that is, for me, exactly what Brown has managed to do in The Indifferent Stars Above. Read this book.
    ...more info
  • Compelling
    This is a story of newlywed Sarah Graves and her family's trek across America from St. Joseph, Mo., to California as part of the infamous Donner Party. But if is not all about the "cannibalism" that occurred, instead it is a story of heroism and true courage against unknown odds. The book grabs the reader's attention from the first page and will hold the reader until the last page. It is a story of life, death and the will to survive. What you thought you knew about the Donner Party is about to change. Highly recommend. ...more info
  • Good history, compelling read, difficult topic done well
    I'm a big fan of history books that make the reader understand what it was like to be in the time and place. Even if the Indifferent Stars Above were about a less famous group of pioneers trying to make it to the West Coast, it would be a very fine book, evoking the dirt, dust and drudgery of traveling from the Midwest to California in 1846. Daniel Brown does a fine job of setting the stage of what normal life was for the Graves family, whose newly-wed eldest daughter Sarah, is the focus of this book. The hard life of a farming family was not in the least bit glamorous, but grand compared to life on the road to California.

    The trip requires crossing rivers and streams, and deserts, walking barefoot much of the way. Many die en route, and local tribes steal the livestock. But more importantly, the group is steered by an unscrupulous promoter to take an untried short cut that delays them by almost a month. The detail of the journey is excellent, and well told.

    The delay eventually proves to be fatal, as they try to cross the Sierra Nevada as winter storms hit. The party is stranded with extremely limited food supplies.

    Exhausted, hungry, and battered by brutal snow storms, the members of the party try to survive. It is clear there is not enough food to survive the winter. One group makes several attempts to get over the mountains and try to go for help. A few of them make it through. Various rescue efforts are mounted, but by the end of the winter, nearly half of the 87 people die.

    The Donner party is famous for cannibalism. The disturbing details of people decide to eat the flesh of those who died is treated straightforwardly, and not in a sensational fashion. The author provides details on the physiological and psychological mechanisms that come into play as people are starving, experience hypothermia, and snow blindness.

    An extremely well research, well written and evocative book about a horrible series of events.

    Some reviewers have complained about the content. It is true that terrible things happen in the book, and it may not be suitable for all. However, it is a fascinating study of people under extreme stress, and a reminder of what the pioneers endured.
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  • Good reading
    This was a good book but I had to skim over some of the things about history. I like more of a fiction and not so much history. All in all it was a good story line about the Donner party and their hardships and all of the greed and pettiness....more info
  • A good story retold
    Well written and obviously meticulously researched, The Indifferent Stars Above is an excellent recounting of the history of the Donner Party. While there have been a number of books about the Donner Party, this one looks at the challenges and trials of the group through the eyes of one of the individuals who lived through the journey - Sarah Fosdik, who was a young bride at the time of the trip.

    What is brought out by the narrative is the incredible journey these pioneers made just to get to California, through trackless miles of prairie and mountains. The sheer effort to get to the west coast, and the few tools and provisions they carried are well documented here. And, unfortunately for them, so is their interaction with an impresario who directed them through a virtually unexplored wilderness to encourage them to migrate to California rather than Oregon. The "shortcut" he proposed led them to have to winter in the mountains, and led to their fate. The book makes clear how hardy these folks were, and the lengths they went to to survive, both those who hiked out of the mountains and those that remained. What is amazing is that so many survived the winter in the pass, and that the impresario (Hastings) wasn't immediately tracked down and killed by the remnants of the Donner Party.

    This is a good read, and educational as the author will occasionally expound on the journey, or the methods or the knowledge that the people had at the time of the pioneers, so you can see the trip from their point of view. You can also see in the story a range of human reactions in the survivors, from bravery to outright cowardice.

    If you are a fan of good history, I'd highly recommend this book. ...more info
  • How Could Such A Thing Happen?
    I started reading this true adventure story because I've spent a lot of time driving across the USA and I've spent more than a little time in the Reno area where Donner Pass is located. In the early fall it's not unusual to be on the way somewhere and suddenly find the roads through the mountains blocked by highway signs saying "Road Closed Due to Snow!" Even in fair weather cutting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a bit nerve wracking because the narrow canyons with their sheer vertical walls and bubbling rivers running along side the road would not be a place anyone would want to be even in a flash flood. It's not unusual to see tree sized driftwood suspended in tree limbs twenty or thirty feet off the ground. Realizing that the rushing waters of the picturesque nearby stream left those fallen trees in that location is chilling. Rain or snow, both are extremely hazardous and there is always the danger of falling rocks that could crush a heavily armored Army Tank as if it were made of balsa wood or whipped cream (reading this story also makes one hungry).
    Anyone familiar with that area which hundreds of thousands of Californians use regularly to reach the gambling heaven of Reno from the San Francisco area has heard of the Donner party. They all know the unlucky party somehow got marooned in the high Mountain Pass for the winter and in order to survive cannibalism was necessary. That's the extent of what most people know of the harrowing saga. This book fills in the gaps of that amazing story of survival against all odds. It answers the basic questions that arise from the story in a very personal, but wrenching way. What happened to the Donner Party could easily happen to anyone where "Hope," denial and stubbornness outweighs common sense. The people in the story are us. "But by the Grace of God, there go we." to paraphrase that bit of folk wisdom. While the story is somewhat depressing, it is at the same time also surprisingly uplifting. It gives the reader a new appreciation for how the early pioneers who crossed the country in a 2,000-mile journey walking along side their covered wagons suffered even if the trip went smoothly and nobody tried a short cut, even one heavily promoted by trusted locals and guides with much different agendas than the settlers and their families.
    This book seemed longer than I expected, but it never drags. It's just that like the trips themselves, telling the tale of the heartbreaking wagon train takes some time. The actual journey across the prairies, deserts and mountains of the western half the United States were painfully slow even on the open plains. The book allows the readers to personally experience the trip including the sections of the journey where makeshift emigrant graves along the wagon wheel rutted route were located almost every 100 feet.
    The Donner Wagon Train included several groups of large families and each experienced similar problems and independently came to the same sad, macabre solutions to staying alive. Those decisions were to haunt most of the survivors for the remainder of their lives. How this could be, who survived and why, how could so much bad luck hit the same wagon train and each of the first three brave rescue parties and what happens to the survivors are all fascinating stories in and of themselves. The book also does a good job of placing what was happening within the fabric of what else was happening at the same time elsewhere in American history. While modern civilization was taking root on the East Coast of the USA, Sarah Graves and the other members of the ill-fated Donner Party were "slowly leaving behind the modern world as it was then and walking into the essentially stone age world in which the California Indians had lived for millennia."
    This story will make the wagon trains of the western settlers come to life. It will give the reader a new respect for the toughness and strength of those early immigrants. It will describe the journey in back- breaking detail. It's a wonder the west coast of the United States, then part of Mexico, was ever settled at all by Europeans. It will also explain many of the current theories of what happened and why. It will exhaust the reader and you will struggle along with the individual members of the Donner party silently praying and pulling for each of them to miraculous survive. Equally interesting is what happened to the survivors. Many fabled, historic figures also have cameo roles in this epic. It is surprisingly uplifting. It is humbling. It will make our current problems seem insignificant. It will help each and every one of us visualize our own place in American history and the overall scheme of things. It's well worth the time it takes to make that exhausting trip via the printed word.
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  • A well written and researched account of doomed emigrants
    I got this book because I have a great interest in the women who walked across a country 150 years ago. For about twenty years, thousands of people moved from the Midwest (St. Joseph, Missouri) to either Oregon or California, arriving with little more than the clothes on their back. Although most of these women are nearly totally unheard of, even now, people remember the Donner Party with horror and comments about cannibalism. To mid 19th century Americans, this was the Jeffrey Dahmer story of the day. Sadly, it is only part of the truth. The author, Daniel James Brown, uses the life of Sarah Graves Fosdick, an eighteen year old newlywed as the focus for his well-researched story about the doomed party, lost in the mountains in winter, freezing and almost entirely without food, shelter and warm clothing. I don't want to call it a story, because so much of it is fact, but Mr. Brown fills in the unknown gaps in Sarah's life with what would be typical of a young woman at her time, traveling from the United States to the "foreign country" of California.

    The book can be a tough read at times, not because of any fault of the author, but because you know that with each step, this wagon party is getting closer and closer to its inevitable dance with death and destiny. The hardships that these poor people encountered is beyond what most people today believe endurable. For example, most people today would not consider annual bouts with Malaria as normal, but back then it was as common as the flu, and just as uninteresting. But even back then, cannibalism evoked the disgust and shivers of horror that it does today. Yet, what these people endured before that was almost beyond comprehension, both then and now.

    I have read many diaries written by women who traveled the Westward trails to Oregon and California, and in many ways, Sarah's experience was a common one. She was not allowed even a small choice as to her own destiny, as women were completely subjugated, the property of fathers and husbands throughout their entire lives. But Sarah proved herself to be of strong stuff, and not the stereotypical 'delicate flower of womanhood.' She survived against all odds, and when she finally finished her travels, she remained almost completely anonymous for the remainder of her life. It is only through Mr. Brown's research and skillful prose that she finds a voice and tells us her story. It's a story that's not very pretty, but it's well worth reading....more info
  • Non-Fiction That Reads Like Fiction. A True Account That Thankfully Lacks Much Of The Gory Details Of This Expedition
    I was hesitant at first about reading this book. I have read accounts of the Donner Party that concentrated more on the gory details than on the human interest aspects of this moment in history. We have all heard some of these tales told before - much like the Andes survivors.

    I was pleased to find that this book is really more of a glimpse of this period in history. Following the path of a young bride and her husband who make the decision to go along with this overland expedition.This is a book that you don't want to put down; it reads as quickly as good fiction, allowing you to almost experience the journey too. This is not a typical recounting of the dreadful details about the Donner party - it is a well researched book that rather recounts the hopes, successes and, yes, the despairs, of the time. Well worth reading I can highly recommend this book....more info