Sunday, November 1, 2015
Review: The Indifferent Stars Above
Daniel James Brown
paperback, 376 pages
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
I thought I knew something about the infamous Donner party, a group of pioneers trapped by weather and terrain as they tried to cross the Sierra Nevada, and driven by desperation to cannibalism.
As it turns out, I knew nothing. Until I read The Indifferent Stars Above, Daniel James Brown's exhaustive account of the Donner party, I had only the most sketchy--and titillating--idea of what happened to this group of pioneers in 1846. Brown's book, (a "harrowing saga" as his subtitle states) tells the story of the tragedy of the Donner party partly by following one participant: Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was one of the fifteen courageous, starving emigrants who put on snowshoes in December 1846, and attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada to California. She and her companions, who included her father, Franklin Graves, and her husband Jay Fosdick, knew that this was possibly the only hope for the people left back at the camp, where families, including very young children, faced certain death unless help was sought.
Brown begins his book with the start of the journey, when Sarah, her parents and siblings, and her new husband, join a stream of emigrants in covered wagons, heading West to make a new life for themselves. Until I read this book, I had no idea of the depth of hardships and obstacles faced by these pioneers. The characters in this saga spring to life as Brown describes each of the families, and the individual family members, in such vivid detail that they become like fictional characters. And Brown brings the time period to life in a way that makes his story completely gripping: reading The Indifferent Stars Above was like reading a psychological thriller and an intense historical novel combined into one irresistible page-turner. The Indifferent Stars Above is one of the best, most intense non-fiction books I've ever read, and probably the best book I've read this year.
I loved the incredible amount of detail Brown brought to life, and the way he portrayed everyday life for the pioneers in the most unstinting, realistic way At the same time, Brown captures the heroism and hopefulness of these ordinary people--and sometimes the depths of their depravity and deceit. The author also writes lyrically and poetically of the beauty of the American West.
Although some passages in this book were difficult to read, I really couldn't put this book down. Brown's writing is genuinely beautiful, and at times I felt like I was reading a Cormac McCarthy novel rather than a historical account of one of our country's best-known horrors.
The Indifferent Stars Above is more than a story of cannibalism or a tragic journey. It is a story of survival, and ultimately it is a story of heroism, persistence, and human courage. What is most incredible about this story is that it is true, and that it happened to ordinary people. Brown is an immensely gifted writer, and his narrative occasionally stops to give the reader a larger historical context, or to provide a brief lesson on how human beings respond to stress. What makes this book so compelling and so readable is the way Brown manages to blend all this information in just the right way, while maintaining a narrative arc that moves inexorably toward both triumph and tragedy.
I can't recommend The Indifferent Stars Above highly enough. Even if you read only one non-fiction book a year, this should be that book. And readers of historical fiction will find themselves right at home in the world of this very real, very true saga.