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Snow Mountain Passage Paperback – April 24, 2002
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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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 --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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.--This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
Top customer reviews
Through the eyes of eight year old Patty Reed and her father, Jim, the story of the Donner Party is told. While most equate this devastating event to cannabalism, the rewards of this beautifully told historical novel will forever replace that focus to one of remarkable human endurance and love.
Jim Reed was captivated by writings of others who had immigrated to the West. Tales of plentiful land, resources and healthy climate gradually convinced him to take his family and his sickly wife in search of such promises. A book written by attourney Lansford Hastings, _The Emigrant's Guide_ especially influenced him. He trusts the claims of a disease free life and a purity of atmosphere in California and he also trusts that the writer traveled the trails of which he wrote. His neighbors and friends were soon captivated by the possibilities and ultimately agreed to travel west together. Loaded with their belongings, hundreds of stock and high hopes, they set off for California.
Human frailties eventually prevailed. What began with high spirits soon were dampened by the inevitable conflicts and confrontations which occurred on the trail. Stress, physical and mental exhaustion, lack of food and water mixed explosively with family jealousies, infighting, religious and cultural differences. One day, Mr. Reed is confronted by another trailsman. Angry and frustrated, he is literally beating to death his own oxen and Jim's animals. Sensing the stupidity of the man's actions, Jim attempts to intervene but the delirious man lashes out at Jim's wife and then Jim. He continues his rage, lashing open the entire forehead of Jim. Stunned, Jim falls to the ground but the man again comes at him and Jim pulls a knife reluctantly to protect himself. The man is accidently killed, but to his family and others the event causes a furor. Men with past grudges want justice and Jim's life. A rope is found for the purpose of hanging. It becomes a turning point for the party. A decision is made that Jim must leave the party immediately. Protesting, his wife begs him to leave so his life is spared. No one can be trusted, now. It caused the birth of the doom that was to befall the Donner Party. The summit and the early winter snow was the final insult.
As Patty recounts her experiences, it is the words of a grown woman looking back and benefiting from the years of reconstructing the events that happened so long ago. The humble appreciation for those that gave their lives so she lived makes for an incredibly beautiful story. The horrors that one so young experienced is tempered by the years and acceptance that life is never fair. Her recollection of the nights and days that 84 men, women and children shared are beyond comprehension. The strength that these families had is more than obvious as Jim Reed and others sacrifice their lives and limbs to mount multiple rescue attempts in repeated efforts to bring out not only his family, but the very ones who banished him from the party months before.
If you want to actually imagine and feel and understand what it was like, to cross the western half of this country in an immigrant wagon train, including experiencing the vast power of winter in the California Sierra, then read this book! It is much more historical fact than historical fiction, but beyond this, it is highly "real", and says more about the discovery of the American West than any other book I've ever read (and I've read a lot about this topic).