Wednesday, July 29, 2015




I learned a new word this week. Anthropophagy: n., the eating of human flesh; cannibalism. Eww.

A most interesting read is The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride
by Daniel James Brown. Really, he treats the whole hunger/desperation thing very respectfully. The topic is not sensationalized and it doesn't come close to being the centerpiece of the book. Which is a good thing.

My San Juan Bautista Book Club chose this book for our July group discussion mostly for its local historical significance. Several of the survivors of the Donner Party (an unfortunate name - it sounds too much like the Dinner Party, you know? - I prefer the Donner Group) came to settle in the surrounding area, including Sarah Graves, whom the author used as the main character of the story. I was greatly impressed by the amount of scholarly research involved in this work and like I said, he worked around the grisly details with dignity and aplomb.

Sarah Graves was one of several women to make it out alive. The men folk did not fare as well in general. Do mothers have more to live for? Are women physiologically more adaptable to cold and physical/mental hardship than men? Brown talks about survival issues and the biology of hunger in a very studious way. I found all of that pretty fascinating.

Basically, the deal is that a group of people from Illinois set out to the west coast on an 1,800 mile journey in the time when Missouri's western border was the edge of the newish United States. They got hoodwinked into taking a supposed shortcut to California called the Hastings Cutoff and found themselves stuck in the vicinity of present day Truckee CA in the Sierra Nevada precisely when a ton of snow arrived. Merry freaking Christmas.

A lot of them died. A few struggled through Donner Pass to get help. A small number was subsequently rescued by three relief groups of brave souls from Fort Sutter. Mistakes were made during the journey from Donner Pass to safety, mistakes which nearly killed the emaciated, crazed refugees. Using handmade snowshoes which soon were thrashed by the elements, one group plunged down into the steep canyons of the North Fork of the American River, adding miles of difficulty to their trip to Johnson's Ranch. Indigenous Miwok and Maidu people were instrumental to their eventual success.

The strongest group, the devoutly Catholic and tightknit Breen family, miraculously survived the whole ordeal intact. The Breens eventually recovered and settled here in San Juan Bautista, and their descendants are still thriving today. Nice folks. Smart as the dickens. Hardy stock.

Some members of our book club simply couldn't finish reading this book. The struggle and the violence (and the anthropophagy) were just too much to imagine. Too squirmy. Too squeamy. I didn't feel that way. I liked the psychological tension, although I didn't share with the survivors the desperate need to stay alive. I came away with a definite feeling that no matter what the circumstances, eating human flesh would not be an option for me. Death? I'm okay with that, if need be.

Most likely, I think I would have either died going over the pass with the first bunch or made it out to get help. Or, and I still think this would have been the smartest thing to do, I would have plunged back through the snow east to Truckee Meadow or Reno and waited out the winter down there.  Hunkering down for weeks on end with little or no food and getting buried by tens of feet of snow? I don't think so. Easy for me to say, but still...

I was glad to get all the way through the messy parts to the epilogue, which is where Daniel James Brown really earns his stripes. The wrapup of the story is excellent as he smooths out the uncomfortable psycho-wrinkles and explains his fascination for the character of Sarah Graves. If you decide to read this book, please don't quit it without reading the epilogue. It will make you feel human. The stars may be indifferent, but you don't need to be.

Peace, Love, and Vegetables,

For further reading:

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