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Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party Paperback – January 30, 1992

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Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party + Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West + The American Experience: The Donner Party
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company; Reissue edition (January 30, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395611598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395611593
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #443,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


''Ordeal by Hunger is compulsive reading -- a wonderful account, both scholarly and gripping, of a horrifying episode in the history of the west.'' --Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author

''Excellent.'' --New York Times

''The tale comes to life in horror and tragedy. Stewart writes swiftly, surely, dramatically, and with impartial accuracy. Almost every member of the party is re-created with skill and sympathy.'' -- Saturday Review

''Expertly read by (audiobook narrator)Jeff Riggenbach, the tale retains its freshness and power 150 years later. Riggenbach reads the stark story with authority, clarity and richness.'' --AudioFile

''(Audiobook narrator) Riggenbach's professional, unvoiced presentation provides the appropriately serious reactions and allows the listener to deal with the facts with compassion. Although grisly, the account is sympathetic and not ghoulish. Carefully researched, it illustrates how unbelievably strong the will to survive is.'' --Kliatt --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.

About the Author

George R. Stewart (1895-1980) taught for more than fifty years at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Pickett's Charge, Earth Abides, and numerous other books of history, biography, and fiction.

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Customer Reviews

Stewart's writing is compelling, and the story is convincing.
Those who enjoy tales of survival will, undoubtedly, find this gripping tale well worth reading.
Ordeal by Hunger is a triumphant portrayal of the human spirit. . . frightningly real.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By John E. Sarna (jsarna@lanset.com) on December 27, 1998
Format: Paperback
This book is well worth reading. It follows the Donner Party from their unfortunate choice of a bad route after they crossed the continental divide in Wyoming to their final "walk" over the Sierras. It concludes with several chapters discussing their ordeal, its causes and consequences, including some postscripts about the fate of each individual afterward.
First, the story does not focus on the cannibalism, which members of the party independently resorted to on several occasions. As Stewart writes, "the cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, has become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels." Instead, the story places the Donner Party in the setting of this country's westward migration, identifying its challenges and the diverse solutions the pioneers developed along the way.
It includes several compelling human interest stories. It's hard to forget how one member, Reed, who was earlier ostracized from the party and went ahead, returned to meet his starving wife and two children, staved and barely walking down the west side of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Reed then goes ahead to try to save their other two children, who were in worse condition at Donner Lake. When the wife sees bare ground for the first time in months, she observes the leader of the "official" rescue party having his men rub his feet, because he thought he might have frostbite. The irony is obvious in the wife's sardonic comment: "we had better take care of him, reverse the order of things.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By LackOfDiscipline on October 7, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this book pretty rapidly because it was so unbelievable. The experience of the Donner Party is one that is impossible for most of us to imagine. If you are familiar with the book (or movie) Alive, by Piers Paul Read, then you will have some sense of what takes place. Many passages brought tears to my eyes.
If you are not familiar with the story of the Donner Party, they were a group of 87 pioneers who set out for California from Illinois in the spring of 1846. They traveled via a passage (which was essentially untried at that time) that was being hawked by a man named Hastings. The trail led them through an ordeal that included near death from thirst, marauding Indians, at least one murder, and, finally, their entrapment in the Sierra Nevada through the worst-ever recorded winter in that region. Sadly, most of the party that survived did so by yielding to the necessity of cannibalism. About half of the original party got out alive.
If you are as fascinated by true tales of extreme survival as I am, then this book will certainly prove gripping. One is reminded of the story of Shackleton's Endurance, or of the Uruguayan rugby team which suffered a plane crash in the Andes of South America. I recommend it without reservation to anyone who can stand it - but it is a most depressing saga.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Chris K. Wilson on January 27, 2004
Format: Paperback
George R. Stewarts" "Ordeal By Hunger" is the ultimate work based upon the ill-fated Donner Party expedition - one of the most horrifying events in American history. Originally published in the 1930s, Stewart's book has been the final word on this tale for multiple generations. Oddly enough, to date it is the most comprehensive study on this story, stocked with excellent detail and insight.
It is almost impossible to imagine the suffering these 80-plus pioneers were forced to endure. After reading "Ordeal By Hunger," one will be much less likely to take their own lives for granted. And that is what the heart is of this story and Stewart's novel.
The year is 1846, and the great pioneer migration west has begun. A group of families, inspired by a recent book by Lansford Hastings promoting a shortcut to California, decide to pack up their belongings and go west. They take the shortcut, though Hastings, who promised to lead them through, is nowhere to be found. They become lost, cutting a trail through the Wasatch Mountains, which to this day is a major highway in Salt Lake City. They cross the great Salt Lake desert, losing wagons and oxen, and eventually find themselves desolate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with little food, inadequate shelter and trapped by the worst snowstorm in recorded history. Eventually people begin to die. In order to survive, many resort to cannibalism. After four relief efforts, about half of the party finally makes it to California. In all, over 40 perished.
To this day, the Donner Party expedition is studied by sociologists and doctors alike. The group slowly fell into an "Every Man for Himself" dynamic, with the elderly and the infants perishing first. Then single men without families died.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Erica on January 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
The basics of this classic human story of survival used to be common knowledge to every Western schoolchild. Perhaps political correctness has taken the sting out of it by avoiding the difficult details, labeling them as being unsuitable for children. But in doing so, Westerners have reduced the Donner Party story to a spurious stain on American character--a ghastly blot to be rubbed out and forgotten, when it is in fact a triumphant lesson, an epic of Shakespearian porportions. And the man who best told the story of these 80-odd Americans, wrenching it away from the penny-dreadful press of the 19th Century, slicing away the innuendo and whispers, giving it poignancy and humanity, was George Rippey Stewart and his book, "Ordeal By Hunger". Seventy years later, it still triumphs as a classic of its kind.
Stewart's style, which is searching and quiet, epitomizes the newspaperman's emphasis on fact. Yet there are passages in "Ordeal" that are so delicately humane, so generous and compassionate, that you will wish Mr. Stewart was still alive, so that you may thank him. Again and again, he emphasizes what should be obvious--that cannibalism was only a part of the ordeal, a symptom of that place in human experience where only Will stands between life and oblivion. That is a dark country, indeed--darker, even, than cannibalism.
There have been a dozen or more major books on the Donner Party catastrophe since the mid-1800's. The first were obsessed with shocking detal. The more recent books have left a strange impression of sanitized, reductionalist "cheerfulness"--a sign, I fear, of our own time's obsession with relativist pragmatism. The man who saw the Party's members for what they were--a slice of the humanity of us all, acting out a Morality Play that is timeless--was George Stewart. "Ordeal By Hunger" should stand with the very best works of American letters.
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