I guess you could say I’m fascinated by the Oregon Trail. Like many youngsters growing up in America during the 1990s, I was in love with the Oregon Trail computer game. My knowledge of survival was poor, of course; In Independence, Missouri, often the main starting place for the Oregon Trail, I would always spend too much money on salt pork (that’s practically bacon, right?), and oxen—mostly for lugging a wagon full of salt pork, but that would eventually run out… I also treated every scrape, gouge, and disease with turpentine—good for runny noses, not so good for dysentery. It’s a miracle my party ever made it to Oregon (most of the time they didn’t).
There was also that time in college when I would escape to the library on cold, blustery days and try to read the Lewis and Clark journals—not quite as engaging as one would think—wait, does anyone even think that?
So, when approached by TLC Book Tours with the opportunity to participate in a book tour for The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown, I couldn’t resist. This non-fiction novel follows closely the lives of Sarah Graves and her wagon party as they leave their establish homestead in Illinois to trek westward, whether driven by manifest destiny or to seek out new opportunity in an economy crumbling under a depression. Originally, they had planned to go to Oregon, but later enticed by Lansford Hastings’s “short cut” and proclaimed prosperity of California, Sarah and her wagon party re-routed southward and toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains and their impending doom.
Creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction is such a wonderful genre, and I consider it one of my favorites. I would also consider it underappreciated because I don’t know too many people who read creative nonfiction unless I’m shoving a Bill Bryson book in their hand (now, soon to be a Daniel James Brown book). It’s a perfect blend of writing craft and expertise on a specific subject that makes history or science or politics (etc.) engaging. Of course, when I say “expertise”, I’m not necessarily implying the author has formal training on a subject. Daniel James Brown focused on English at school, not history (nor science or politics, which play an equally important role in the telling of this tale). Yet, curiosity or interest led him down the path of writing a book about surviving the Oregon Trail anyway. The amount of independent research that went into this book is astonishing. There are 14 pages of sources and 28 pages of chapter notes, which Brown uses to explain how he may have deduced certain characteristics about people or write about the pioneers’ surroundings using rich and beautiful imagery.
Perhaps even more astonishing is, I found myself moved by the individuals illustrated in this story of the Oregon Trail. Of course, there is the particularly horrifying part of the story, the reason why the Donner Party is so well-known—the resort to cannibalism after being snowed in and stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It doesn’t occupy that much of the book though, and the scenes are handled with care, but are nonetheless gut-wrenching. But, for the most part, I found myself moved by the individuals in their day-to-day lives on the trail. Brown shatters the perception that people in the 1800s were stern and lacking personality and instead portrays them as passionate, curious, nurturing, and faithful people. My book is scrawled with notes, exclamations, and expletives as reactions to decisions of certain people. When the wagon party experienced love and community and celebration, my spirits soared. When Charles Stanton, a Donner party member, left refuge at Sutter’s Fort to return to try to save the party stranded in snowy mountains despite having no familial tie to the group, I cheered for him and crossed my fingers he would reach safety once more. When irritated and desperate pioneers murdered members of the party, my heart sank, and I internally shouted, “I CAN’T EVEN!”.
The Indifferent Stars Above was incredible– not just because I’m a sucker for the Oregon Trail but also because Daniel James Brown breathed life into the people and their surroundings as they tried to survive the Oregon Trail. Allow me to use this cliché, but this book took me on an emotional roller coaster. Now, I cannot wait to recommend to friends and family. I don’t even care if they don’t think they have any interest in the Oregon Trail (or worse, nonfiction books)—this book will change that.
Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; 1 edition (September 22, 2015)
In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and fourteen others set out for California on snowshoes and, over the next thirty-two days, endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.
In this gripping narrative, New York Times bestselling author Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most infamous events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah’s journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative.
Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys in the Boat and Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.