Desperate Passage
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Desperate Passage : The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

4.03 (2,049 ratings by Goodreads)
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Description

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened-and what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion-remained shrouded in myth. Drawing on fresh archeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity." A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, Desperate Passage casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 304 pages
  • 154.94 x 231.14 x 22.86mm | 430.91g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 8pp halftone plates
  • 0195383311
  • 9780195383317
  • 348,434

Review quote

"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 "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 Trailshow more

About Ethan Rarick

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.show more

Table of contents

List of Characters ; Prologue ; Journey ; Tribulation ; Salvation ; Author's Note ; Acknowledgments ; Notes ; Selected Bibliography ; Indexshow more

Rating details

2,049 ratings
4.03 out of 5 stars
5 31% (644)
4 45% (916)
3 20% (416)
2 3% (55)
1 1% (18)
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