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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2017 Michael Wallis (P)2017 Audible, Inc.

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Well researched but performance is just mediocre

Where does The Best Land Under Heaven rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

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.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Best Land Under Heaven?

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.

What did you like about the performance? What did you dislike?

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.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

The Hunger of the Trail

Any additional comments?

I wish that there was a downloadable accompanying PDF with maps and photos.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

An engrossing account of a familiar story

I'm no history buff but I enjoyed this audio book very much and found it hard to pause for a break. I recall learning of the Donner Party in grade school but this account offered much more detail and made me think about the tragic events in a new way. Wallis was an amazing narrator and I couldn't imagine listening to another voice.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing

I've never shown much interesting history but after hearing about this book on NPR, I felt I needed to give it a try. I was not disappointed.

Of course, I knew that the Donner party was a group of settlers who got caught in the mountains over winter and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. But I knew nothing of all of the perils that faced them before and after they were stranded. I am amazed that any of them survived, let alone 46 of them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It will make you feel very differently when you find you're having a bad day. No bad day today could ever compare to that of the Donner party members.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Too bad

At Chapter 12, I lost my ability to follow the narration. At times overly dramatic, choppy, and slurred, I wish Mr. Wallis would have selected otherwise.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great Story

The story is very interesting and educational albeit maybe a bit too detailed. Listing all the supplies was not valuable. Did not enjoy the narration. Needs someone with a better cadence.

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Grim Tedious Recount

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Not sure who would enjoy this reading. I imagine it is historically accurate, but the repetition detail, of names, and slow slog were not compelling.

What didn’t you like about Michael Wallis’s performance?

I found the author’s reading ponderous, overly dramatic and somewhat irritating. While his voice is very good - nice timbre, deep; his reading came across as amatuerishly dramatic.

Any additional comments?

This book was a selection for my book club - otherwise I would not have selected it. It tells a grim tale - and the final stages seemed to fall into an almost ‘Lord of the Flies’-version of humanity. Not for me.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Cammy
  • PHOENIX, AZ, US
  • 03-15-18

Well researched; more comfortable campfire storytelling style.

The word emphasis at times did not always match the intent, although the correct wording was present. This was interesting with all the content, but not a novel and pick up and read. Take some time to digest the information and perhaps rewind a few parts. If this era interests you, then you would come away with more insight.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • ScottF
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • 12-14-17

If you are thinking about getting this, do it.

Great book, well worth your time. The author performs it himself and does a great job.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

It's like reading the Old Testament of the Bible!

It's very focused and sets the stage. I forced my self through the first half of the book. Very eye opening in the end. I was hoping for answers. Now faced with questions. how I might of faced the same nefarious times? Power thru you might be able to summon up the a powerful inward demons. How powerful hardships of being a living organism in Mother Natures game of life. What would you do?

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Great story... but narrator...

Amazing story but the narrator is a little frustrating. He has a terrific voice for this book, but tends to put the emphasis on the wrong parts of sentences. Doing that can really disrupt and confuse the story being told.