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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 187 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195383317
ISBN-10: 0195383311
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Editorial Reviews


"His is the first significant book, written, like Stewart's, in a novelistic mode and likely to gain popular readership, to incorporate this new data.... Rarick's account is not really about science; it's about humanity.... Rarick has done his homework."--New York Times Book Review

"This sober, unflinching look at one of the great tragedies of America's pioneering past tells us a great deal that is new about the Donner Party's trials. Rarick scythes away the myths of one of the nation's better-known sagas, and offers up this horrific but ennobling tale in all its freshly researched detail. Readers take heed: this is a tough book, but a gripping one."--Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa

"Rarick takes an evenhanded and thorough approach to the story of the Donners' covered-wagon migration across the country and their winter entrapment in the Sierras. His telling is evocative and easy to read."--Seattle Times

"Desperate Passage is the most up-to-date narrative history of the Donner Party available today and as such is a welcome addition to the literature. General readers, especially those who know of the Donner party only as the cannibal wagon train, will undoubtedly find it a fascinating read."--Overland Journal

"Many books tell the Donner story, but none digs as deep for the truth as Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West.... With personal details...bringing a human touch to the story, Desperate Passage succeeds in rescuing the Donner Party from 162 years of infamy."--Tacoma News Tribune

"A history of the first rank - precise, restrained and compelling.... Desperate Passage makes a gripping tale, and Rarick makes a scrupulous guide."--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"With a reporter's doggedness and a scholar's thoroughness, Rarick has clarified the historical details. ... Rarick makes this compelling frontier drama all the more so."--National Geographic Adventure Magazine

"A clean, chilling cautionary story of misjudgment and perseverance.... Rarick deals with this most extreme of issues [cannibalism] with the evenhandedness and lack of melodrama that characterize the book throughout." --Houston Chronicle

"A well-written, copiously documented account."--Deseret Morning News

"Reads like a novel, and for those who are drawn to American history...coupled with one of the most grisly survival tales in history, then this is the absolute book for you."--Monsters and Critics website

"Desperate Passage is a wise book, not only a horror or an adventure story but a universal and timeless tale about acts of desperation performed by average people under extreme conditions - a situation that can befall coal miners in Utah, soccer teams in the Andes, occupants of the World Trade Center, or readers of the book."--Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West

"Rarick illuminates this classic America stage through a deftly told drama of courage and cowardice...with a fascinating cast ranging from the iconic American Everyman to the astonishing scoundrels."--Van Gordon Sauter, former President, CBSNews

"Like the foreboding passages in an operatic overture, the ordeal of the Donner Party warned Americans that tragedy could not be banished from this newly acquired province. In this meticulously detailed narrative, Ethan Rarick presents the full horror and bravery of a dystopian episode that would forever qualify the California experience."--Kevin Starr, University of Southern California, author of Americans and the California Dream

"The story of the ill-fated Donner Party's trek across the country is the reverse image of Lewis and Clark's: seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong -- from bad leadership to disastrous choices, from fatal accidents to murderous fights, and finally a ghastly ordeal in the Sierra snows. It's a remarkable story for all generations, and with the advantage of updated research and a keen eye for detail, Ethan Rarick builds a quick-moving narrative."--Dayton Duncan, author of Out West: An American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail

About the Author

Ethan Rarick has written about politics, crime, business and sports throughout the West. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he is the author of California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown. He lives in Berkeley, California.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195383311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195383317
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 0.5 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (187 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Carol Berger on February 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: 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.
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