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?