Cutting through 160 years of mythmaking, best-selling historian Michael Wallis presents the ultimate cautionary tale of America's westward expansion.
"Westward ho! For Oregon and California!"
In the eerily warm spring of 1846, George Donner placed this advertisement in a local newspaper as he and a restless caravan prepared for what they hoped would be the most rewarding journey of a lifetime. But in eagerly pursuing what would a century later become known as the "American dream", this optimistic yet motley crew of emigrants was met with a chilling nightmare; in the following months, their jingoistic excitement would be replaced by desperate cries for help that would fall silent in the deadly snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
We know these early pioneers as the Donner Party, a name that has elicited horror since the late 1840s. Now, celebrated historian Michael Wallis - beloved for his myth-busting portraits of legendary American figures - continues his life's work of parsing fact from fiction to tell the true story of one of the most embroidered sagas in Western history.
Wallis begins the story in 1846, a momentous "year of decision" for the nation, when incredible territorial strides were being made in Texas, New Mexico, and California. Against this dramatic backdrop, an unlikely band of travelers appeared, stratified in age, wealth, education, and ethnicity. At the forefront were the Donners: brothers George and Jacob, true sons of the soil determined to tame the wild land of California; and the Reeds, headed by adventurous, business-savvy patriarch James. In total the Donner-Reed group would reach 87 men, women, and children, and though personal motives varied - bachelors thirsting for adventure, parents wanting greater futures for their children - everyone was linked by the same unwavering belief that California was theirs for the taking.
Skeptical of previous accounts of how the group ended up in peril, Wallis has spent years retracing its ill-fated journey, uncovering hundreds of new documents that illuminate how a combination of greed, backbiting, and recklessness led the group to become hopelessly snowbound at the infamous Donner Pass in present-day California. Climaxing with the grim stories of how the party's paltry rations soon gave way to unimaginable hunger, Wallis not only details the cannibalism that has in perpetuity haunted their legacy but also the heroic rescue parties that managed to reach the stranded, only to discover that just 48 had survived the ordeal.
An unflinching and historically invaluable account of the darkest side of Manifest Destiny, The Best Land Under Heaven offers a brilliant, revisionist examination of one of America's most calamitous and sensationalized catastrophes.
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Well researched but performance is just mediocre
If I were to rank it with ALL audiobooks, it's not at the top of the list. It's not even at the top of the list for the four Donner Party books i've read, due to the performance. I don't know if the author's ego got in the way of making him think that he would be the BEST interpreter of his own work. I hate to break it to him, but he should have hired a professional performer for a story of this caliber. This was my fourth book about this story and I attend the Donner Party Hike in Truckee each fall. I loved the extra information that I had never heard before, but being an audio book, there were no footnotes; this led me to believe that some of the information was just supposition for dramatic effect. It was only truly telling when the author read an actual passage from a dairy or article. How would he have known some of the things that were never quoted or sourced? How would he know that the meat of the bison was lean? How would he know that the Hastings book was so useless to the party that they used it for kindling and toilet paper? On a good note, there was so much new information that this makes me curious enough to get the hard-copy of this book and check out the sources.
The poor decision to take the Hasting's cutoff after being advised not to. The trouble that the cutoff presented to the party (especially the lost time). James Reed murdering John Snyder. The murder of the Miwok Indian guides for their flesh. And definitely, the afterward. Usually, this story ends with a happy springtime rescue. There was evidently more at hand here, and I relished the additional information never gleaned before.
I tend to think of the performance of an elderly alcoholic grandfather telling a bedtime story, as there were cadences that ended as if there would be a spitting sound into a brass spittoon, or perhaps a wad of vomit exiting his vocal canal. Or, on the bright side, think of an old-timey gold miner spinning a yarn. It just could have been better. For the Donner story, I prefer the performance from Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick.
The Hunger of the Trail
I wish that there was a downloadable accompanying PDF with maps and photos.
- T. Redwood
An engrossing account of a familiar story