Young readers discover an unforgettable voice in the latest novel-in-verse from Skila Brown, To Stay Alive, about 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves, a real survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. Brown shares the moment when Mary Ann captured her imagination.
What did I know about the Donner Party? I’m sure I’d heard about them in school—a paragraph in a dry textbook chapter on westward expansion. I had a fuzzy idea their story involved cannibalism when I pushed play on a How the Donner Party Worked podcast while driving on an interstate through Indiana four years ago.
I was immediately captivated.
This story was the very definition of high-stakes drama: accidental deaths, sickness, fights, missing treasure, romance and murders (plural!).
And of course there was the fact that they were stuck by the mountains all winter and watching their food supply dwindle. Mothers couldn’t feed their children. Honestly, the cannibalism seemed the least dramatic part of the whole escapade.
I had to know more. First books . . . then documentaries . . . then . . . googling the names of survivors for photos.
And that’s when I saw her. The “belle of the Donner Party.” Mary Ann Graves. Staring off to the side with dark ringlets and a strong jaw and a haunted look in her eyes. I couldn’t look away.
A little bit of research and suddenly I was holding in my hands a copy of her marriage license. Sunday, May 16, 1847: Just weeks after she was rescued, and while her feet were still healing, she and a rescuer named Edward Pyle—a man born in the same county in Indiana where I now live—stood before an official and took their wedding vows.
They were married for a year when her husband disappeared the following spring. For 12 months, he was missing and Mary Ann was alone. Around the time that would have been their second anniversary, his body was recovered. He had been dragged behind a horse, and when that failed to kill him, his throat had been cut. A man was tried and found guilty of the crime. Mary Ann reportedly cooked for him and delivered food to him in prison so that he would live long enough to hang.
I liked Mary Ann.
She remarried a few years later and had seven children. Those eyes that haunted me in her photograph gave her trouble after the snow-blindness she suffered while trying to cross the mountain for help. For the rest of her life, she couldn’t make tears.
Here was a woman who’d journeyed west by foot for the promise of new land and better climate. She’d watched her family starve around her on the way, then taken a husband, only to become a widow. Later in life she cared for her son while he was dying, taking sick herself and following him shortly after to death. And all the while, she was tear-less.
You don’t meet a character like this every day. I didn’t set out to write a book about the Donner Party, but no character I could create as a fiction writer would be as interesting to me as this woman. Someone who actually existed. I had to get my hand on every letter she’d written, every interview she’d done. I had to see what her siblings said about her, how the other people she traveled with described her.
I had to write about her. What choice did I have?