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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West | [Ethan Rarick]

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival.
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Publisher's Summary

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened--and what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion--remained shrouded in myth.

Drawing on fresh archeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity."

A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, Desperate Passage casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.

Download the accompanying reference guide.

©2009 Ethan Rarick; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.0 (357 )
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  •  
    LeeAnne Sandston, VA, United States 08-15-12
    LeeAnne Sandston, VA, United States 08-15-12 Member Since 2009
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Riveting!"
    Would you consider the audio edition of Desperate Passage to be better than the print version?

    Excellent book and good narrator. Can't go wrong with such a dramatic story.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Patroo the High Desert 04-03-12
    Patroo the High Desert 04-03-12 Member Since 2005

    patroo

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A complex story that we never knew in such detail"

    This is a superb book, especially for listening to while driving in the country traversed by the Donner party members. The amount of research that went into this book is overwhelming. I've never heard of some of these details, nor had I ever studied the event enough to realize the complexity.

    It wasn't just that they got stranded on the wrong side of the summit when the snows of Truckee started falling in earnest. Over the course of the trip, there were times over and over when they could have gained a day here or there, thwarted by a flooded river for a loss of three days in one spot, taking an extra day off for a 4th of July hangover, etc. If any one of those events had been changed, sending the party on down the trail just a little faster and sooner, they'd have been able to crest the ridge and struggle into the California settlements.

    Poor decision making made an impact, as did a shyster named Hastings, who promoted the Hastings Cutoff as a way to save time. It turned out to be an undeveloped trail that hadn't even been fully traversed by wagons, and the promoter didn't wait to guide them as promised. Trail progress was gained in inches as the roadway was built literally in front of the struggling train.

    Had they stuck with known trails, they'd have made much easier and faster progress overall. They lost cattle and oxen during the trip, and when they finally gave up to winter over at the lake, they didn't have enough supplies. Animals wandered away, died under the deep snows, not to be found without grave difficulty. Even when found, the starved animals provided little food.

    There were several efforts to push through to California with a few of the members, each group given a name, such as "The Forlorn Hope." Some made it through to Sutter's Fort, and Sutter himself helped in assembling relief parties to rescue the stranded. Some of these foundered in the foothills and lost heart themselves as they rationalized that these people in the mountains must be dead, or else doing just fine with all that livestock to eat.

    Meanwhile, the stranded travelers, living in rude cabins roofed with ox hides, were eating everything they could, including the hides that formed their roofs. Eventually cannibalism became the only option left, for all but one family. The escape parties also engaged in cannibalism. The dead had been emaciated when they passed, and they provided little sustenance for those who yet lived.

    Tamsen Donner is a heroine, nursing a dying husband while sending her children to safety. The first time she sent them away, paying their guardians a substantial sum of money for their trouble, the guardians promptly dumped the kids with another stranded family that was camping a ways away. A second attempt at getting the kids out went better, but there were casualties in that party. Tamsen didn't go out with the last big group, electing to check on her husband once again, 7 miles by trail in their shabby cabin. She was going to catch up to them, but it was an unrealistic dream, as even strong men could only do some 5 miles or so a day in the snows, and Tamsen had been on starvation rations for months. Of her fate, we have only Lewis Keseberg swearing that she showed up at his cabin after George Donner died, and that she died that night, presumably from the stress of her journey from their own cabin. Did Keseberg help her into that final darkness? Rob her of family treasure?

    It's a fascinating tale, though a tragic one. We know a luxurious life today compared to those struggling travelers who spent months in wet or icy clothing, huddled around a sputtering fire while gales howled through the drafty walls.

    The narration is very well done.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rebeka Wentzville, MO, United States 01-12-12
    Rebeka Wentzville, MO, United States 01-12-12 Member Since 2010

    Average stay at home housewife with 3 kiddos trying to learn about new somethings in the world. Only non-fiction! No time wasters for me!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Desperate for sure!"
    What did you love best about Desperate Passage?

    I cannot say enough about this book. What an incredible story. One of the best things about this book is that there is quite a bit of psychological insight to the mindset of these people.

    I highly recommend this book.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    William Brightwood, Virginia, United States 10-30-13
    William Brightwood, Virginia, United States 10-30-13 Member Since 2011

    Capt. Moroni

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    "Outstanding account!"

    This book is concise, accurate, riveting and flows nicely. The author has done magnificent research and portrays this trajedy in accurate context. He also dispells the earlier myths and exaggerations of the publics understanding of the events. This work explains many of the details of the significant mistakes and decisions that lead the Donner Party to their entrapment in the Sierras. But from there the author clearly lays out the trials and tribulations of their four and a half month horror and the reader learns they simply did what they had to do to survive. This book made me feel a part of the experience. What a tribute to the pioneering spirit that helped settle our West. I cannot pray over my meals or at my bedside without pausing to reflect my own blessings of food, warmth, and shelter. The narrarator does a fine job. Some reviews are simply too critical and expect perfection. The narration flows nicely.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Nicole PROVO, UT, United States 05-09-13
    Nicole PROVO, UT, United States 05-09-13 Member Since 2011
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    "VERY INTERESTING"
    Any additional comments?

    This book taught me a lot about this time era of the pioneers and the harsh stuff these people went through. Amazing what they did and has made me very greatful I haven't had to travel on foot and live through the conditions they had too.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Reserved Powers Michigan, United States 03-15-13
    Reserved Powers Michigan, United States 03-15-13 Listener Since 2010

    Mom, birdwatcher, and online teacher

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    "Compelling Story, Excellent Narration"
    Would you listen to Desperate Passage again? Why?

    Yes, it is one of the few audiobooks that I have already listened to several times. Once you reach the end, the information about the main characters at the beginning becomes more interesting. The imagery that is evoked by the narration is powerful.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    Tamsen Donner was my favorite character. She tried to keep the semblance of a normal life for her daughters, telling them stories and fixing their hair, amidst great tragedy.


    Any additional comments?

    Inspiring story about all aspects of human nature.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ashley United States 03-10-13
    Ashley United States 03-10-13 Member Since 2012
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Way too much history but still good."
    Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

    Yes if they like history. The whole first half is nothing but history. It takes forever to get to the story.


    What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

    I didn't realize that they endured these conditions for sooo long.The least interesting part is you get a way too detailed history lesson before they even get to Donner's Pass.


    Which character – as performed by Christopher Prince – was your favorite?

    There weren't any character performences except in the places where letters were read.


    Do you think Desperate Passage needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

    No , because it's a nonfiction book.


    Any additional comments?

    If you like history then you will like this book, but it takes forever to get to the storyline. Once you finally get there, ,and I mean it takes several hours, it gets really interesting. I didn't know anything about the Donner Party so it was really interesting to learn about. I was in snow storm Nemo and it made me feel very fortunate for what I have. I went 24 hrs without power and being cold but these people went 3-5 months. The conditions they endured were terrible and each family's story was touching. I didn't realize there were so many people that were in the Donner Party. It is sad because most of the families stuck by themselves. I think if everyone had of pooled there resources and come together that things would of turned out differently and alot more people would have survived. It is truly amazing how many people did survive and at the very end of the story you get to find out what happened to alot of them after their horrible ordeal. The narrator did a really good job and kept me engaged through the long drawn out history lesson. Overall this one could either be worth or not worth your time.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    The Restless Mouse Marysville, WA United States 03-10-13
    The Restless Mouse Marysville, WA United States 03-10-13 Member Since 2013

    TheRestlessMouse

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    "We are all wimps"

    I didn't know much, just the basics about the Donner Party tragedy, and found this audiobook to be riveting, and I gained new respect for the pioneer western settlers. This book is based on actual diaries and other accounts of people who were involved, so you get the real story, or at least as much as can be had.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cherry United States 03-07-13
    Cherry United States 03-07-13
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    "Wonderful Book"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    yes - puts you back in history


    What did you like best about this story?

    Just seeing how people used to live.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    liked them all.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    yes


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Dustin HOUSTON, TEXAS, United States 03-05-13
    Dustin HOUSTON, TEXAS, United States 03-05-13 Member Since 2012
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Great book but very sad story"
    What made the experience of listening to Desperate Passage the most enjoyable?

    I really enjoyed how detailed the book is, even though it is terribly depressing to hear what the people went though.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of Desperate Passage?

    The details of the living conditions and different people clustered together.


    Which character – as performed by Christopher Prince – was your favorite?

    There really wasn't a single person that I connected with, but it was a great history listen into what they people went through


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    No it is simply to long


    Any additional comments?

    don't listen to the second half of the book during lunch...

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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