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Snow Mountain Passage [Kindle Edition]

James D. Houston
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $14.00
Kindle Price: $11.84
You Save: $2.16 (15%)
Sold by: Random House LLC


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Book Description

Snow Mountain Passage is a powerful retelling of the most dramatic of our pioneer stories—the ordeal of the Donner Party, with its cast of young and old risking all, its imprisoning snows, its rumors of cannibalism. James Houston takes us inside this central American myth in a compelling new way that only a novelist can achieve.

The people whose dreams, courage, terror, ingenuity, and fate we share are James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner Party, and his wife and four children—in particular his eight-year-old daughter, Patty. From the moment we meet Reed—proud, headstrong, yet a devoted husband and father—traveling with his family in the "Palace Car," a huge, specially built covered wagon transporting the Reeds in grand style, the stage is set for trouble. And as they journey across the country, thrilling to new sights and new friends, coping with outbursts of conflict and constant danger, trouble comes. It comes in the fateful choice of a wrong route, which causes the group to arrive at the foot of the Sierra Nevada too late to cross into the promised land before the snows block the way. It comes in the sudden fight between Reed and a drover—a fight that exiles Reed from the others, sending him solo over the mountains ahead of the storms.

We follow Reed during the next five months as he travels around northern California, trying desperately to find means and men to rescue his family. And through the amazingly imagined "Trail Notes" of Patty Reed, who recollects late in life her experiences as a child, we also follow the main group, progressively stranded and starving on the Nevada side of the Sierras.

Snow Mountain Passage is an extraordinary tale of pride and redemption. What happens—who dies, who survives, and why—is brilliantly, grippingly told.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews Review

Snow Mountain Passage is a novel about the Donner Party. Still reading? Never fear, this is no corpse fest along the lines of Piers Paul Read's Alive, and its concerns are anything but prurient. For James Houston, who has written movingly about California in the past, the Donner Party's experiences exemplify the ambition, the courage, and the sheer hubris of those who ventured into territory as unfamiliar to them as the moon. His book is not just a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong and who ate whom, it's a searing portrait of both the promises and the perils of the American dream.

Houston follows the events of 1847 through the eyes of James Reed and his daughter Patty. Exiled from the party after he accidentally killed one of its members, Reed made it over the Sierras before snow locked what is now called Donner Pass. His family, however, did not. Along with more than 80 other stranded emigrants, they erected crude cabins below the summit and settled in for a long winter of hunger, cold, madness, and cannibalism, chronicled by Patty Reed in prose of uncommon urgency and even beauty. Here, for instance, she watches as her mother walks away with the first rescue party, leaving her by the shores of Truckee Lake:

My body was like an empty bottle sitting on a dark shelf in an empty cupboard. A cold sun was shining. While we stood there the wind came up, rushing through the pines with a sound like surf, a gushing roar like water on the rise, as if an ocean of ice water had begun to pour across the world.
In contrast, the book lags while James Reed crisscrosses California, attempting to scare up a rescue party for his family. And the author spends far too much time describing the landscape. This reader found at least half her attention back at Truckee Lake with the starving emigrants, wondering guiltily, "Have they eaten anyone yet?" Still, the book generally moves along at a terrific clip, its characters sketched with swift, sure strokes, and their disastrous decisions depicted without excuses or blame. "You couldn't have stopped him," Patty thinks about her father, who persuaded his traveling companions to take the fatal route. "Or stopped any of it." The Donner Party's fate, Houston implies, was as inevitable as America's great westward expansion. But like that epic movement, Snow Mountain Passage highlights both the best and the worst in human nature. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

The myth of California has been a preoccupation of Houston's in both his fiction (Continental Drift) and nonfiction (Californians). Here he reimagines the saga of perhaps the most infamous of California dreamers: the ill-fated Donner Party. The story is told primarily from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the party, who sets out in a luxurious, fully equipped wagon he calls the Palace Car, with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Somewhere in Nevada, jealousy and trumped-up murder charges oblige him to ride ahead alone, leaving his family behind with the party. When the wagon train is stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevada, Reed must try on his own to assemble a rescue team. His efforts bring him into contact with petty despots (John Sutter, for example), thieves and opportunists, as well as people of uncommon nobility and dignity. In making Reed central to the story, Houston is true to history (the Donner brothers were marginal players in the drama) as he presents a compelling portrait of a man who was a mixture of renegade and hero, his unrealistic dreams of grandeur imperiling his family. Alternating with Reed's tale are trail notes written from memory 75 years later by his daughter Patty, depicting the despair and madness besetting starving members of the snowed-in families. A dispassionate observer at age eight, Patty learns to trust and reveal her compassion, and sitting by the bay in Santa Cruz as an old woman, she brings a redemptive note to an undertaking usually viewed with reflexive loathing. Haunting and immediate, Houston's novel reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability and moral ambiguity. (Apr.)Forecast: This could be a breakout book for Houston, who has a solid but mostly local reputation. His previous efforts have fared well critically, but a 40,000 first printing signals Knopf's commitment to leading his latest into the promised land of higher sales.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 646 KB
  • Print Length: 338 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0156011433
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (December 18, 2007)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000XU8DTM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #953,473 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy April 4, 2001
There have been so many excellent books about the 19th century American West in the past year, starting with "Gates of the Alamo" to "The Borderlands" and "The Heartsong of Charging Elk" (my nomination for the best novel of 2000), straight through to "Snow Mountain Passage."
James Houston tells the story of the Donner party from the point of view of James Reed, a member of the wagon train who did not spend the winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevadas. He had been sent on ahead, and was one of the people trying to reach the stranded families from the other side of the mountains. His frustration is excruciating as he battles for support in an area that is consumed with breaking away from Mexico. Rescue parties he mounts are turned back again and again by blizzards. Reed refuses to accept that rescuers may not be able to reach the settlers until the terrible winter is over. He knows that his family and the others cannot survive that long.
Survival in the freezing camp is recorded by his youngest daughter, Patty, who looks back on that winter as a woman in her 80's. Her story is told with the clear eyes of a child and the wisdom of an old woman. The fact that there were any survivors is incredible. This was an exceptionally frigid winter, and the families crammed into hastily thrown-together shacks, without heat, polar fleece, or thermals, eating anything, anything to stay alive. There was little heroism. Each group was on its own. Patty's trail diaries reveal the smell, the anger, the hunger, the despair that no one will come to help in time.
The desperation is heightened for the Reed family because they are one of the reasons the group did not make it over the summit before winter set in.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Native Californian finds heroism in Donner tragedy April 27, 2001
One of the most horrifying stories in American history is that of the ill-fated Donner party, stranded in the high Sierras by a vicious snowstorm and held there for months without food before rescue was possible. When the news hit the newspapers at the time, it was sensationalized far beyond the truth, and the horror has never left us. Now native Californian James D. Houston, an award-winning writer, has written a novel about it. A lesser writer would have drawn mostly upon the gory aspects of the story, but Houston is a sensitive author, and in his hands it becomes one of death and survival, of ordeal and weary triumph.
Houston has concentrated his novel on two of the characters: James Frazier Reed, and his daughter Patty.
James Reed was an affluent father when he set out in 1846 with his wife Margaret and their four children following the California dream and the untried map of Lansford Hastings. From the beginning, Reed incurred the envy of many of his fellow travelers because of his large, specially-made wagon and many comforts the family were taking along the trail.
The envy would finally wreak its effects on Reed when after being attacked by a fellow traveler, John Snyder, Reed kills the other man. Reed is almost hung by his irate companions, but after some reason prevails, he is instead banished and sent on ahead while his wife and children continue with the wagon train. No one knows at the time, but being sent ahead will save Reed's life by allowing him to cross the mountains ahead of the snowstorm. His wife and family will be stuck there without him, while he traverses central California looking for a rescue party, then has to wait frustrating months until the snow is passable.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars James D. Houston and the Experience of the West April 12, 2001
Comparisons to other historical novels of similar epic sweep, such as Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," are perphaps inevitable. James D. Houston, however, in "Snow Mountain Passage" escapes the colloquial and anachronistic style of McMurtry's dialogue in favor of an authentic cadence and vocabulary of the Old West, in language as magnificent as the landscape through which James Reed, the protagonist, moves west ahead of the Donner Party, and then east to their rescue.
The novel is written principally through two points of view: James Reed, the father, adventurer, sometime rascal member of an eighty-person wagon train heading west to California from Illinois; and Patty Reed, his eight-year old daughter, who stays behind in the snowy mountains of the Sierra and endures the harrowing privations of the settlers marooned by the lake which now bears their name. The split perspective allows Houston to tell the tale of California's formation from the early days of the Mexican War (significantly, Houston accords the Mexican settlers the dignity of the title "Californians," and pictures the settlers as the usurpers they were). Patty's story is told through her "trail notes," written many years later in Santa Cruz, where she lived out the last years of her long life. Ingeniously, Houston times the months of her journal entries in 1920 with the months of the Donner experience in the mountains.
The voices ring true. The bold, fearless account of James Reed, and the resigned voice of his young daughter now grown old, who, like Holocaust survivors and others who endured too much, is resigned to a life forever scarred and altered.
While other reviewers have noted the detail of natural description with a critical eye, this cavil perhaps misses the point.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good
It was very well written and a really interesting story. I did wish that it focused more on the daughter and less on the father, but I really enjoyed it.
Published 10 months ago by Maura
3.0 out of 5 stars Requires perseverence
I found this novel hard-going. My husband gave up on it. The reason is that it tends to jump around too much - from past to present tense, from point of view to different point of... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Marj
4.0 out of 5 stars Donner Lake is a Misnomer
Anyone who took high school American history is familiar with the Donner party and the great tragedy that befell them when they attempted the monumental crossing from Illinois to... Read more
Published on November 14, 2010 by Alex C. Telander
3.0 out of 5 stars Profoundly Disappointing
There may be a definitive Donner Party novel, but this isn't it. Houston chooses to tell the story from great distances. Read more
Published on January 22, 2010 by Mick McAllister
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving, vivid tale...
This is a beautiful, beautiful book, brimming with emotion and rooted in the majesty and danger of nature. Read more
Published on January 26, 2008 by Kenneth Simon
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings
I admit to being a bit disappointed, as this book turned out to be more about Jim Reed and less about the Donner party. Read more
Published on July 16, 2007 by Misfit
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the finest books ever written about the West
This is simply an awesome display of storytelling, combining historical "fiction" with non-fiction (the latter derived from the actual notes and writings of a real survivor of the... Read more
Published on May 12, 2007 by David Marks
4.0 out of 5 stars Snow Mountain Passage
Excellent book centered around the recollections of one of the Donner Party. Author did a terrific job of integrating the actual events with the very lucid memoirs of one of the... Read more
Published on January 5, 2007 by Charles Engles
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good read!
The book starts out in Santa Cruz California with Patty Reed recalling her memoies of the "Ordeal by Hunger" (another book) Many times I had to remind myself that Patty herself... Read more
Published on November 3, 2006 by W. S. Ward
5.0 out of 5 stars Hunger has no boundaries
An historical novel about the Donner Party is of interest. Tales of cannibalism and other kinds of deprivation make the rest of us grateful to be living in the modern era. Read more
Published on October 9, 2005 by Mary E. Sibley
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