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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride Hardcover – April 28, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1 edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061348104
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061348105
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,556 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The story of the ill-fated Donner party, a group of nineteenth-century settlers en route to California who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and resorted to cannibalism to survive, remains an iconic moment in American history. Given the story’s inherent elements of horror and heroism, it is surprising that this account, told from the point of view of a young bride who survived the tragedy, is finally such an uninteresting book. Part of the problem is the author’s inability of incorporate his copious background material into the flow of the narrative (readers probably don’t need to know about 1840s-era birth-control methods). Even the author’s treatment of the tragedy itself, however, feels dully reportorial, without any of the you-are-there drama that Piers Paul Reid brough to Alive!, his account of history’s second-most-famous cannibalism-survival story, concerning the famous 1972 airplane crash in the Andes. So why bother with this Donner party treatment when so many other, more compelling works exist? The premise itself sets this book apart, and while it’s not handled particularly effectively, it will still interest those fascinated by the subject. --David Pitt


“Brown draws from the many previously published accounts of the tragedy, letters from the party and those who knew them, accounts of life on the Oregon and California trails, genealogical databases, and his own travel along the trail…but he tells the tale with a novelist’s touch.” (Boston Globe)

“A compelling retelling of the ghastly events surrounding the Donner party. Daniel James Brown, using one survivor’s experience as his focus, moves beyond the cardboard figures depicted in previous accounts and shows how the lucky few endured and survived.” (Irvin Molotsky, author of The Flag, The Poet and the Song: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner)

“In this gripping narrative, Brown reveals the extremes of endurance that underlie the history of this nation, and more than that, of humanity in any part of the world, even today, surviving great peril in search of a better life.” (Nina Burleigh)

“A skillful, suspenseful study of the Donner Party, narrated from the point of view of a newly married woman…Wading through the many previous accounts of the ill-fated journey, Brown creates a thorough and unique narrative. A moving man-against-nature tragedy that stillresonates today.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality.” (BookPage)

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Customer Reviews

Well worth reading I can highly recommend this book.
Author Brown shows his deep interest throughout the narrative by his very careful research, and his actual trek over the same route the Donner Party followed.
Betty L. Sheldon
Only an imagination like Daniel Brown's can make that possible.
ghost of a red rose

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By B. McEwan TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This history of the (in)famous Donner party alternately reads like a thriller, a horror story, a nature study and pure poetry. Author Daniel James Brown really did his homework, actually tracing the route taken by a young woman named Sarah Graves Fosdick as she trekked across the American West with her new husband, seeking a homestead in California.

Taken in by an opportunist named Lansford Hastings, who wanted to make a name for himself (not to mention some quick cash) by routing Westward-heading emigrants through what he called his "shortcut," the several families of the Donner party made a fateful decision to heed Hastings' advice and follow his unproven route through the Sierra Nevada mountains. This was, as history shows, their undoing, as they became stranded throughout the winter in 20+ feet of snow, with no food and minimal shelter.

After several failed attempts, Sarah Graves and some of her companions managed to escape through what is now called the Donner Pass, but not until many members of the party had died and the survivors had been reduced to cannibalizing the bodies of their relatives and friends.

Brown relates the whole story, beginning with the departure of Sarah and her family from their home in Illinois through her death at the age of 46 in what is now known as California's Napa Valley. In doing so, he writes with sensitivity and compassion, inviting readers to imagine both Sarah's joy during the first half of her journey and the deep grief she must have felt throughout the remainder of her life once she finally reached California. At no point does Brown stoop to judging the people whose story he relates, nor does he sugar-coat the events of their tragic situation.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Betty L. Sheldon on October 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"I think I'd rather die than resort to what the Donner Party members did to survive their 'death march' across the California Sierra Nevada mountains!" I exclaimed as I finished reading, The Indifferent Stars Above, by Daniel James Brown. My reaction shows, that given these pioneers' circumstances, nobody knows what they would actually do in a similar situation. It's a wonder any of the survivers kept their sanity!

Author Brown shows his deep interest throughout the narrative by his very careful research, and his actual trek over the same route the Donner Party followed. No doubt his distant ancestor, Sarah, provided high motivation for him.

This version of the epic-making experience of the Donner Porty interested me greatly, because I had lived in some of the places Brown mentioned in his narrative.

If you enjoy history, because it is his-story, her-story, their-story, this book is an excellent read. Brace yourself, though, it is not a good bedtime story!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By debeehr on March 10, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Daniel James Brown's account of the Donner party disaster is a riveting retelling of this ill-fated journey. He has done copious research, not only on the Donner party itself, but on the physical, emotional and psychological effects of prolonged starvation and exposure, and manages to weave it all into a fascinating narrative. He presents his material so vividly I almost felt as if I were there seeing it all firsthand. His choice to follow Sarah Foster's journey, both through his book and actually physically in taking a driving trip overland, was a wise one. The sympathetic portrait he paints of this young woman, scarcely out of her teens yet faced with more horrific, agonizing decisions than most people experience in a lifetime, gives the book a center and an immediacy that it otherwise might have lacked. Definitely this is going to become must-reading for all those interested in the fate of the Donner Party.
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33 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Aquadiver on January 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I was taught in graduate school that the first criterion for reviewing a book is to measure the author's success in meeting his stated aim. On that basis, I have to give this book no more than three stars, and that high only because it is well-researched and detailed.

The stated premise is what should have separated this book from many others about the Donner expedition, an account of that tragedy through the eyes of one of the survivors. But it never achieves that. The voice and the viewpoint are entirely the author's. Sarah Graves is perhaps more prominently mentioned than some of the other characters, but when incidents occur through the course of the narrative, we learn of them through the author, not through Sarah Graves. We occasionally get an idea of what Sarah might have thought about an incident, but it's entirely the author's idea of what she might have thought.

There is no doubt that the author put a great deal of effort into researching the book, and he generally treats the subject matter with sensitivity, not sensation, as one might expect from the grand-nephew of one of the survivors. The writing is good, though it swings back and forth between straightforward reportage and attempts at lyrical imagery in setting the scenes in which the Donner Party tragedy took place.

The photos in the middle are a bonus and help to bring the characters to life. The absence of a map, however, is a bit disappointing. Books on topics involving journeys should always have maps!
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More About the Author

Daniel James Brown grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. He taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. He now writes narrative nonfiction books full time. His primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life vividly and accurately.

He and his wife live in the country outside of Seattle, Washington, with an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees. When he isn't writing, he is likely to be birding, gardening, fly fishing, reading American history, or chasing bears away from the beehives.

Amazon Author Rankbeta 

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#67 Overall (See top 100 authors)
#5 in Books > History
#67 in Books
#5 in Books > History
#67 in Books