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I read a great book recently, Snow Mountain Passage, about the quest and fate of the Donner party as they traveled from Illinois to California in the mid-1800s. Until then, my familiarity with the Donner party had been limited to driving through Donner Pass to rock climb on Donner Summit overlooking Donner Lake (near Truckee on the way to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco). I’d heard that the Donner Party had gotten stuck in the mountains and had to eat each other, and that was all I knew. I didn’t know exactly what the Donner party was. I assumed it was a family of people by the name of Donner. Now I know a lot more:

1. The party was about 80 people and comprised several different families, among them, two brothers named Donner (Jacob and I forget the other one), one of whom was the “captain” of the party, giving it its name. The reason I don’t remember the name of the other Donner is that the Donners are hardly mentioned in the fictionalized Snow Mountain Passage. The story is told from the viewpoints of Jim Reed, the “real” leader of the party according to Houston’s novel, and his daughter Patty.

2. The party traveled from Illinois to California along with dozens of other wagon trains of people who were migrating West—many toward Oregon and many toward California. For a variety of reasons, the Donner party fell far behind and ended up being the only party that didn’t make it through the mountains before the snow storms hit.

3. San Francisco was called Yerba Buena until 1847.

I won’t tell you too much more, but this is a fabulous book, so if you’re looking for something to read, pick it up! And if you don’t want to read about cannibalism (unlike me, I DESPERATELY wanted to read about the cannibalism), don’t worry, it’s a very small part of the book, at the very end.

A side note: I bought this book because the author, James Houston, was at the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference when I was there in 2007, and I had him sign it for my dad. Since then, Houston has died (last year, in April of 2009). I’m anxious to read his other books.

Coincidentally, an up-and-coming mega-author named Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, came to The Grotto for lunch this week. Cronin, who won a PEN/Hemingway award in 2002 for his novel Mary and O’Neil, decided after graduating from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and writing two literary novels that he wanted to earn a bit of money. So he sold a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy for $3.5 million. Oh, and that’s not including the $1.5 million movie deal with Ridley Scott. I’d say that’s a bit of money. I’m not a fan of vampire novels (although I’ve never read one, so it’s not really fair to say I don’t like them), but I’ve already purchased The Passage because, from what I hear, not only is it a great story, but the writing is terrific as well (how can it not be written by a PEN/Hemingway award winner?)

So there you go. Two books. Two passages. What about you? Read any good books lately?

8 comments to Passages

  • I'm in the middle of THE CARDTURNER by Louis Sachar, and it's pretty good. (I just have a minor quibble with the parents, who are completely one-dimensional and not believable. But with half a dozen other awesome characters, they don't really matter.)

    I heard about THE PASSAGE and am very curious to see if it's any good. But I'm afraid that if it's not, I'll forever hate him for how successfully he played the system.

    (And by "hate," I mean "feel extremely jealous and forlorn, and desperately wish I had been so clever!" :P)

  • I'll put this on my to read list. I'm also drawn to the cannibalism. I read a book years ago about a soccer team stranded in the Andes when their plane crashed who also had to eat the flesh of their dead comrades to survive. I loved how they explained it– they were all Catholic & they thought of it as the sacrament, the body & blood of Christ– given to save them. It was pretty cool. Not graphic but very heart-wrenching. Dang it I can't think of the name of the book. There was a movie made out of it a while ago. I am writing a really long comment in hopes the name will come to me. I think the Donner story is fascinating. I lived in Gilroy, CA for awhile, and several of the Donner Party descendents still lived in that area.

    The best book I'm reading right now is Jane Austen's Emma.

  • Kristan – I feel extremely jealous and forlorn and haven't even opened The Passage yet! I'm halfway through The Book Thief. I think you read that recently, too?

    KarenG – thanks for visiting! I don't think I've ever read Emma, but I have it and many other classics on my iPad now, so there's no excuse!

  • I thought of it! Alive was the name of the book and the movie, too.

  • Ani

    I am reading Farm City by Novella Carpenter. And I am a bit surprised that I like it because it's about the trials and tribulations of be(com)ing an urban farmer, a subject that I am not really interested in. But then again the author's farm is in Oakland (where I live) and it's peppered with characters and themes that are so bay area. The writing too is clean and very readable.

  • KarenG – thanks for the tip!

    Ani – Christine is friends with Novella, and I think some Grotto people know her, too, so I've heard about her book quite a few times. I'm not really interested in urban farming, but I bet it's fun to read about the Bay Area.

  • John Ciardi~ A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.