In 1846, a small group of settlers who flocked to golden California to seek their fortunes met disaster instead. While the westward trek bore many hazards that claimed their share of lives, the group known as the Donner Party has become synonymous with a doom brought on by ill fate and ill planning—doom, and a fate more gruesome than death. Trapped in remote mountains by paralyzing blizzards and desperately short of supplies, some of the group resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Now the story of that perilous journey is retold in James D. Houston's sensitive, moving and compassionate novel, Snow Mountain Passage. Houston's prose vividly recalls the settlers who banded together to trek across the empty plains, and who would wind up depending on each other for survival. Houston tells the story from two perspectives the experiences of James Frazier Reed, who traveled with the Donner Party along with his wife and children, and the recollections of his daughter, Patty, as an elderly woman. Houston skillfully weaves the two timelines and perspectives he tells Reed's story as events unfold, but presents Patty's memories 50 years after the fact. Reed's experiences on the trail serve as a metaphor for the entire settler experience. Enthralled by the prose of a self-appointed prophet of westward migration, he leaves in search of better land and a healthier climate for his ailing wife. Forced to defend himself when a trailside argument turns violent, Reed learns that frontier justice is different from his civilized expectations, and he is expelled from the party. Riding ahead, he becomes the party's only hope when he crosses the mountains just ahead of the storm.
Having encountered former traveling companion Charles Stanton heading with supplies to the party's relief, Reed believes they are safe. But as Patty recalls, the small group of rescuers arrives only as more savage weather engenders an equally savage struggle for survival.
Houston reveals the tragic consequences arising from a combination of prosaic decisions, such as which fork of a trail to take and the unpredictable nature of the elements. In this notable book, the reader shares the lives and experiences of a group which has become a tragic footnote in history.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.