Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Indifferent Stars Above

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown (2009)

We've all heard of the Donner Party, a group of doomed pioneers trying to cross the Sierra Nevada under such tough conditions they resorted to cannibalism. Before reading this book, that's all I knew about them. Thanks to Daniel James Brown, the gaps in my knowledge have been filled in great and disturbing detail.

The author chose to pick one character as his focus: Sarah Graves, a young newly-married woman who was traveling with her husband, parents, and a slew of siblings ranging from infant to adult. They were part of a larger group of 87 people. Things first went wrong when they took the advice of a man named Lansford Hastings, who wrote a guide for emigrants that suggested a cutoff that would trim many miles off the trip across the Sierra Nevada into California. What it shaved off in distance it more than made up for in difficulty, making travel with wagons almost impossible. The party also hit some early delays that meant their trip would be hitting it close to winter under the best circumstances. At one point they came to a complete halt, unable to make it over a pass, already hungry and cold and weakened as snow fell heavily around them. Here they built some rough shelters and stayed. They made several attempts at getting through the pass, crafting snowshoes to help them. Eventually a group, including Sarah Graves, made it across to their destination, Johnson's Ranch, but not without losing some people along the way. People who they ended up eating in desperation.

They were starving, their clothes and shoes in tatters, and some of them were snowblind. As people died, eating their flesh seemed to be the only way to survive. I know they've been judged for this behavior, but to be honest, those bodies aren't of any use to anyone, so why not? Otherwise they would just have been eaten by wild animals. (And by the way, the Donner Party consumed their own oxen and pet dogs before resorting to eating humans.)

In the end, out of 87 people in the original group, 47 died. I was actually surprised near the end to see those numbers because I didn't realize the group was so large to begin with. I think I had forgotten how many kids everyone had and, although Brown did talk about (or at least mention) everyone in the group at some point, I hadn't added them up in my head. Another thing I found surprising was the demographic breakdown of deaths, men dying at a much faster rate than women. Apparently, those who were single were in much more danger than those who traveled as part of a family group, and most single travelers were men. Also, women have more body fat and are thus less likely to die from hypothermia, and of course their caloric demands are also a little less.

There was a lot of interesting information about the science of starvation, the psychology of survival, and other related topics. Sometimes that sort of thing can feel like filler, but I found it fascinating. Brown also provided context about what else was going on in the world at the time, which I love. For instance: Christmas was just beginning to be celebrated in the 1840s, Edgar Allen Poe was writing "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Neptune was discovered, and a powerful new steam locomotive was unveiled.

Obviously the group didn't expect things to be quite so bad, but still, it's kind of shocking to realize how much people were willing to risk for the promise of a better life. From what we learned in the book, their lives weren't terrible in the first place; mostly they just wanted more opportunities than they already had. As hard as it can be to be trapped in a house during a pandemic, it's much preferable to spending months struggling across a mountain range in the winter while literally starving to death. I highly recommend this if you're interested in stories of survival under difficult circumstances.

No comments: