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93 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fatal Mistakes
History was never my favorite subject. In fact, I managed to get a Master's Degree without taking one history class in college. As I have grown older and visited historic sites while traveling in the western United States, I have become much more interested in history, particularly of the 1800's in America and of this part of the country. Luckily there is no lack of good...
Published on February 7, 2008 by Carol Berger

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of good detail
Illuminating story on the Donner party. It contains lots of details but it still is good story-telling. Read it in the summer so you won't feel so cold.
Published on February 7, 2013 by MK


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93 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fatal Mistakes, February 7, 2008
By 
History was never my favorite subject. In fact, I managed to get a Master's Degree without taking one history class in college. As I have grown older and visited historic sites while traveling in the western United States, I have become much more interested in history, particularly of the 1800's in America and of this part of the country. Luckily there is no lack of good books on the subject to pick up where my junior high school history class left off. One of the best of these is Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick, released early in 2008.

In the fall of 1846 the Donner party of wagons was the last to try to cross the Sierra Nevada on the way to California. 81 men, women, and children were trapped in the mountains for months by a snowfall that halted their progress west. Desperate Passage is the story of those who survived the ordeal and how they did it, and of those who did not and how they died.

Rarick starts by introducing us to the members of the party, telling us of their lives up until May 12, 1846, when they left Independence, Missouri, and of their hopes and dreams for a new life in California. He chronicles their journey westward with its hard work and deprivations, and their apparently fateful decision to take the untried Hastings Cutoff. He details their winter in the snowy mountains without sufficient provisions; successful and unsuccessful attempts by some of the members to go for help; the death, desperation, and sacrifices of both the members of the party and some of their would-be rescuers; and the ultimate rescue early in 1847 of the last of the survivors.

Based on "fresh archaeological evidence" and recent research, Desperate Passage includes maps, pictures, and a list of "dramatis personae" to help the reader keep things straight. A rapid read, it is an engrossing, well-written, and thorough book, and a must-read for anyone interested in history - even us Johnny-come-latelys.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful research makes an intriguing story even better, September 22, 2008
Ethan Rarick's intriguing account of the Donner party's tortured attempt to reach California in the winter of 1846-47 is honest and well-written. In DESPERATE PASSAGE he has eschewed the tendency towards sensationalism found in so many other books about the emigrants and has relied on extensive research to tell the story of the small band of pioneers stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains and its struggle for survival.

This book has many stories of heroism and cowardice, industry and sloth, resourcefulness and ignorance. The enigma of the way the group handled the dreadful conditions under which it eventually found itself is clearly laid out without being judgmental or overly lurid. When the Donner party is discussed today, cannibalism is the overriding theme attached to the story. Rarick certainly doesn't sugarcoat the details, but presents them in such a way that the reader can understand abandonment, homicide, or the eating of human flesh without feeling the revulsion that normally accompanies such ideas.

We often hear of humans suffering through hunger, filth, and horrific climatic conditions. The vast majority of us haven't actually experienced those types of conditions in person. It's more likely that we've read about them while munching on an apple and hearing the wind and rain assault the exterior of our comfortable houses. Or perhaps we've seen the starving children in third world countries pleading for help on television screens. Rarick will change all that for you. In this riveting account of real life suffering, your apple will not taste as sweet nor your coziness be as comforting. You'll actually feel the pain caused by hunger and cold. The cooking up of a loved one's liver might be a little more acceptable.

The sheer number of characters involved in the Donner story and the number of incidents makes the narration hard to follow. I had a little difficulty following who did what when, but that is my only criticism of this work.

As I've said many times, research makes the book. Rarick has done his and he has included some modern findings that shed new light on conditions found and decisions made in the Sierra blizzards that plagued the Donner party. His compilation of this enormous amount of background material into such a tight and compelling report is truly the mark of a great writer. I strongly urge you to read this book.
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wrong choices with sad consequences., April 5, 2008
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Janlynn (Sussex, WI United States) - See all my reviews
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I've read many accounts of the Donner Party over the years. This is the first well-documented account I have found. The tragedy is told in a straight forward way and the writing makes for a fast read. The only thing I wish the author had included is a more detailed map (or maps) of the Donner party's path.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Yet on the Donner Party, September 21, 2008
I live in the area where the Donner Party was trapped, and have read almost all that has been written on the subject. This is by far the most complete and accurate book I have read so far about this tragedy!!!
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Amazing, November 25, 2008
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Steven James (Washington State) - See all my reviews
This book was so utterly amazing in every aspect that I won't be able to come up with the words to do it justice. The trials that The Donner Party were forced to endure are beyond comprehension, yet the author makes you feel like you are on the journey with them. The sense of place and time makes for some eerie and extremely uncomfortable reading, but it also makes one appreciate lying in a comfortable environment merely "reading" about it. The updated information about The Donner Party also sets this book apart from the rest of the stories about this ill-fated journey. I've been interested in this story ever since I was a little kid and we were driving from Washington State to Disneyland and my mom was telling us about the Donner Party. Since then I've always searched out information about them, but "Desperate Passage" is the best I've ever found. I highly recommend this book. One of the best books of the year, hands down.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wagon Train In The Winter, February 2, 2008
Mr. Rarick tells the familiar story of the Donner Party's tragic trek to California in 1846-1847. Marooned in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter with little food and poor shelter, this tale of survival is buttressed by new archaeology and by extensive review of primary sources. This documentation fuels his picture of the Reed family and centers the deprivations and the rescue around them. The book moves at a good clip and gives an overall picture of this twice-told tale.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?", July 7, 2011
By 
mwreview "mwreview" (Northern California, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (Paperback)
After watching the excellent documentary "American Experience: The Donner Party," I wanted to learn more. Ethan Rarick expands on a lot of the issues in this saga. As many primary sources that are available were used and the author tells the story as accurately as possible--even making sure names are properly spelled. The Donner Party was doomed by poor timing, bad decisions, the advice of a conniving promoter, and terrible luck.

The documentary makes much of Lansford Hasting's promotion of a shortcut that he did not even try. Rarick covers "Hasting's Cut-Off" in depth, of course, but also examines the dilly dallying of the Donner Party, who left Independence Missouri late in the season, took many unnecessary days off and often started late in the the day and pitched camp early. Edwin Bryant was concerned of the party's tardiness, and ended up gambling with some traveling companions by taking pack mules and leaving the group. At Fort Bridger, Bryant wrote a letter addressed to Donner Party leader James Reed warning him against taking the risky Hastings Cut-Off. Rarick explains why this letter was never delivered (actually, the author uses the strange, flowery wording of "the warning letters from Bryant lay as hidden as a miser's heart") (pg. 57). The late start and many delays may have played a role in Reed not heeding other warnings that the Hastings Cut-Off and the man promoting it was not what was advertised as they needed to make up for lost time in order to beat the coming of winter. This decision ended up costing them more precious time and, considering that they arrived at the Sierra Nevada just as a storm hit ushering in the worst winter in the area on record, proved fatal for many members of the Party.

The author goes into the background of many of the more important people in the story. Tamzene Donner, for example, is given a detailed back story, letters she wrote her sister right before the journey to California are quoted, and her final departure from her children is described.

Rarick paints a picture of a group of travelers who were not always very close-knit. Fights broke out (and at least one murder) along the way, weakened companions were left behind to die and, during the worst times where families were forced to camp at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) for the winter, animosity grew between factions and the care of other families' children were often resisted or resented. The behavior of some of the rescuers was also selfish and unfeeling, although one rescuer is singled out for his commitment to getting the survivors out of the camps (pg. 215).

The main reason the Donner Party is such a famous tragedy is the cannibalism which took place, both in the group who left camp to make it over the mountains as the "Forlorn Hope" and in the camps at Truckee Lake. A sad fate fell on one child who was rescued but ended up perishing due to overeating. Rarick examines the cannibalism issue factually but also with reference. He also explains reasons why women survived at a significant higher percentage than men.

The author uses strange wording sometimes. Along with the "miser's heart" line, the sentence "...if you cannot reach them for precisely the same reasons they cannot reach you--then how the hell do you save their lives?" does not fit a book that is, for the most part, well-written and formal. A list of the names in the Donner Party and whether they survived or perished would be a welcomed addendum as many had the same surnames. Otherwise, "Desperate Passage" is an excellent and highly recommended source on the Donner Party. It is 288 pages with notes and index and a small middle section of photos and illustrations.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read, February 10, 2008
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This book is very well written and a total page-turner. Mr. Rarick recognizes that the story of the Donner Party speaks for itself. He does not weigh the reader down with embellishments or assumptions or added drama. When most people hear about the Donner Party, all they really get out of the story is a sensationalist account of cannibalism. However, the real story is so much deeper than that.

Several young mothers left their children behind and hiked for over two weeks in hopes of a rescue. A five year old literally had to crawl over the Sierra with a rescue party (after months of hardly any food). One rescuer had three little girls in his charge. They were too weak to walk and so he carried each one several yards, set her down, and went back for the other, slowly but surely crossing the Sierra.

After you read the entire book, what really shocks you is not how many people died, but how anyone survived at all.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Neither heroic nor villainous..., June 26, 2010
This review is from: Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (Paperback)
The epic disaster defining the Donner Party is such a bear to tackle. Like the wagon train, it curls through numerous valleys and over multiple mountains. What to emphasize? What to ignore? Ethan Rarick's 2005 update "Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West" is a riveting account of the most famous pioneer catastrophe in American history. While archaeological finds have granted new information, I'm not sure this is an improvement over George Stewart's ultimate 1936 book Ordeal by Hunger.

For whatever reason, Rarick has ignored some dirty secrets while examining others (a similar mistake of the brilliant and incomparable 1992 PBS documentary The American Experience: The Donner Party). The journey took place over a year, as the party left Independence, Missouri in May of 1846 and the final survivor arrived in California in April of 1847. Considering what happened over a torturous process encompassing many months, one practically needs an encyclopedia to cover all angles. Perhaps with today's attention-deficit-disorder marketplace, you have to leave out facts for quick consumption.

For those unaware, the Donner Party was the final wagon train to set off for California in 1846. A surprisingly easy journey through Fort Bridger, leaders made the fatal mistake of choosing the unproven Hastings shortcut over the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert (Salt Desert Trails). By the time they crossed both expanses, they lost a month of time, half their cattle and many wagons. Terrified pioneers struggled forward to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter snows. Eventually trapped, they suffered unimaginable starvation, freezing temperatures and the worst blizzards in recorded history. Out of 80-plus pioneers, roughly 40 men, women and children died, with many survivors cannibalizing the dead to live.

"Desperate Passage" is a polished and responsible work, and Rarick makes credible observations. The book is closer to the truth than past studies, and his passages about the level of cannibalism (a controversy to this day) are thoughtful. He disagrees with theories the Donner Party plodded along, though disparages their observance of the Sabbath the day after heavy drinking on the Fourth of July. Rarick's belief that James Reed was the one natural leader is plausible, and his banishment after killing John Snyder following an enraged disagreement, was yet another factor tipping the scale towards catastrophe.

For more than a century, Lewis Keseberg has been carved into the great villain of this tale. The final survivor brought down out of the mountains, it was claimed he enjoyed cannibalism, murdered Tamsen Donner (Searching for Tamsen Donner (American Lives)), was the first to resort to cannibalism, wanted to hang Reed, threw the elderly Hardkoop out of his wagon and was German to boot! It appears everywhere treachery took place, Keseberg was hovering like a smirking fiend. One of the lessor known occurrences is the mystery of Wolfinger, a wealthy German settler who vanished after the crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert. It appears he was murdered for his gold coins and, once again, Keseberg may have been involved. Rarick entirely ignores this angle, perhaps because it involves a more sinister element than historians are comfortable tackling. Or perhaps he doesn't believe the story. Which is it? Rarick refuses to vilify Keseberg, which is unique to traditional versions. I don't believe Keseberg is a monster (two of his children died) any more than Reed is Captain Ahab for insisting on the Hastings shortcut. But to entirely ignore the Wolfinger episode is irresponsible.

After finishing Rarick's book, I shut it quickly and took a deep breath. What a story, and has American history ever produced such intimate tragedy? Rarick sums it up best with a single line, and with the exception of his discovery of the unsung hero John Stark, is perhaps his greatest contribution - "the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous." A fine companion book, though not the final word.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Desperate Passage - a must read about the Donner Party, May 7, 2010
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This review is from: Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (Paperback)
This is not the first book I have read chronicling the tragic story of the Donner Party, but it is certainly the best! Ethan Rarick's writing style is easy to read and completely engrossing! He includes many interesting details about survival under starvation conditions, snow fall and other weather information, along with his very factual accounting of what really happened in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846-47. He relies heavily upon actual accounts from the people directly involved, uses common sense to fill in gaps in the narrative, and dispels long-held myths along the way. My family lives near the Sierras, traveling often to the areas where this tragedy happened, and have read the author's references to the present day locations of those events with interest. Mr. Rarick's extensive research into every detail of this fateful journey shows in this remarkable book. Anyone who wants to know the true story of the Donner Party should read this book! (Written by Anne Sterling)
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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West
Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick (Paperback - July 8, 2009)
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