Snowbound Hardcover – March 2, 2010
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|Hardcover, March 2, 2010||
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- Item Weight : 13.4 ounces
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0765316625
- ISBN-13 : 978-0765316622
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.16 x 8.51 inches
- Publisher : Forge Books; First Edition (March 2, 2010)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,846,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Wheeler has chosen a cross section of company members to report the progress of the journey. Their various points of view offer a great vehicle to inform the reader of an exploration which for its length and duration could otherwise become tedious reading. In addition, Fremont, often known as "Pathfinder" (for his self-flattering reports of previous explorations), is not a simple character to define.
A man proven to be devious, wholly self-interested and defiant of authority, Fremont had been court martialed and ejected from the military, but continues to use his former title. In the meantime, when "Colonel" Fremont was unable to ingratiate himself into the family of powerful Missouri Senator Benton, he eloped with his daughter, Jessie. The expedition group that leaves from Missouri is composed of Fremont's former exploring company and new men who join the company for the half-hearted "promise" of pay upon return. While such arrangements may seem strange to us today, it was not unusual for footloose men of the first half of the nineteenth century to join such loosely gathered parties under such conditions if only to "see the elephant," an adventurous lark. What we readers get from the eyes of these many observers is their leader's total disregard and lack of concern for the safety of his men and animals.
In order to identify the informants and their contributions, Author Wheeler used their names for chapter headings. Oddly enough, Fremont's former fellow travelers were fairly tight-lipped about their leader and never questioned his decisions. From the others, we learn of the monolithic decision-making of Fremont, his frequently stupid choices and stubborn refusal to change even the most disastrous mistakes. In those instances we observe Fremont's canny pursuit of scapegoats to hold responsible for his errors. Another aspect of the man is his foolhardy mismanagement of finances. John Fremont always lived with the "wolf at his door," spent much of his time calculating financial gain, and when it came, made terrible investments and squandered the proceeds.
Unquestionably, the most exciting (and agonizing) piece of this work, is the expedition's trek (against all advice) over the mountains in the cruelest months, during storms of the bitterest cold and the most snow and ice in anyone's memory. Fremont had been directed to an experienced guide whose advice he both ignored and deliberately rejected (and subsequently blamed for the tragedies that followed). Furthermore, although it was apparent early-on that the old man had been correct, Fremont refuses to change course.
The last third of the book, told from the informants (including Fremont himself) tells of the incredible horrors they faced. Divided into small "mess" groups, spread out along the trail, ten died of starvation and cold, others lost limbs from frostbite, still more straggled behind crawling on their knees, their frozen feet half-wrapped in bits of blankets for they had eaten their boots. These small groups tried to save one another while their leader rode ahead on horseback apparently with ample food, and left them to drag the company's machinery and packs which had been deserted when the company mules died. With ample food and horses, although not entirely unscathed, Fremont arrived at the first town off the mountains in considerably better condition that the men he'd deserted. True to his nature, the "Colonel" left it to the local townsmen to return to the trails to rescue his men.
For readers seriously interested in American History, Richard S. Wheeler offers a fascinating read. While the book is fascinating, particularly for its focus upon a highly controversial leader, the author leaves unexamined the psychological underpinnings that have or could have created the parts of him that were truly monstrous. We must be mindful, too, that the Donner Party, a similar disaster, occurred in 1846, and was given wide newspaper publicity. Surely Fremont and others must have known of it before they left Missouri.
Less clear to me is the quality of the book as a novel. The presentation is kept lively by the number of informants. In that light, SNOWBOUND may best be considered creative non-fiction because somehow the author doesn't quite deliver the "guts" of a novel, the internal emotional turmoil that must have twisted this perverse protagonist and his loyal followers.