In April of 1846, the Donner party—a group of 89 men, women and children with plenty of wagons, animals and food—headed west from Illinois. One year later, more than half the group had died, mostly from starvation and fatigue. Infamously, the survivors resorted to eating their dead after heavy snowstorms trapped them in the Sierra Nevada.
The Donner party is sometimes treated as a curious footnote to history, and perhaps rightfully so. Allan Wolf’s The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep revisits this grisly chapter of westward expansion to take a fresh and thought-provoking look at the doomed travelers.
Wolf constructs his story in a multivoice verse format he calls “narrative pointillism.” Readers experience the perspectives of adults, children and even a pair of hardworking oxen. The format also gives voice to lesser known figures in Donner party lore, such as Luis and Salvador, two Native Americans who were conscripted to help the party and were fatally betrayed.
Over the book’s nearly 400 pages, the Donner party members abandon animals, people, loyalties and hope itself. There are many deaths, including murders, and characters must grapple with the moral choice between cannibalism and survival. Readers in the mood for a lighthearted romp should look elsewhere.
In a stroke of brilliance, Hunger serves as a Greek chorus throughout the book. The hunger for food becomes the characters’ primary focus once the expedition goes figuratively south. But this narrative device also cleverly speaks to the many motivations of various Donner party members, including hunger for land, prestige, love, warmth and closeness to God.
Although the surviving members of the group are eventually rescued, nothing is tied up with a neat and tidy bow. To his credit, Wolf does not sensationalize this story’s numerous tragedies, nor spare the reader illuminating details. The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep is historical fiction at its very best.