The Indifferent Stars Above is the gripping tale of the Donner Party who in 1846 set off from their homes in the east of the United States of America to travel overland to California, only to discover that the ‘shortcut’ they’d been promised was no such thing, leaving them to flounder in a hostile landscape as winter set in. As the months passed and with no thaw in sight, a small number of the party would attempt to reach civilisation and get help, leaving the weakest to dig in at their ‘temporary’ camp. By the time help was at hand many of the party had died, and many of them had been eaten too.
Brown’s account of the epic trip of the Donner Party follows one member in particular – Sarah Graves, a young woman who started the trip with her parents, siblings and new husband, and ended it as an orphaned widow. Through Sarah, Brown provides us with not just the facts of the trek but also helps us to imagine the hopes, dreams and fears that spurred the party on, the niggles and frustrations that arose between the different families, and the conditions in which they lived.
Whether tallying the provisions that a family would need, the work that needed to be done by the different members to keep their wagons on the road, the calories that would have been expended by the people doing said work, and the calories being taken in through their dwindling supplies, Brown really hammers home the strength and fortitude required to survive such a trip, convincing me more than ever that I wouldn’t have lasted a week even when things were going well.
By the time we face the horrors induced by the party’s predicament as things went from bad to worse, it feels like we know the different members rather intimately and therefore are more understanding of the practicalities that drove their decision making while feeling more keenly the loss of each who died.
But while this is indeed a rather harrowing saga indeed, it’s also a very hopeful one that lays out clearly the strength the surviving members displayed in simply continuing to endure their situation even when things were at their most hopeless. Prior to reading this, I’d been indulging in more than a little self-pity at my own problems, so as well as being excellent, this book really helped to put things into perspective.