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The Best Land Under Heaven Audiobook

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

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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 Rating

4.4 (137 )
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  •  
    T. Redwood Santa Cruz 07-14-17
    T. Redwood Santa Cruz 07-14-17 Member Since 2015
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    "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.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Emily 07-14-17
    Emily 07-14-17 Member Since 2016
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    "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.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JustinK 07-11-17
    JustinK 07-11-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Almost overly detailed"

    There is so much detail and references to family connections it makes it hard to follow the story.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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    Rebecca Lynch 07-02-17 Member Since 2016
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    "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.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kindle Customer Fort Edward, NY, US 09-11-17
    Kindle Customer Fort Edward, NY, US 09-11-17 Member Since 2016
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    "the narrator ruins it"

    Really a fascinating story but the narrator is awful!! He's clearly an inexperienced reader, leading to a choppy and grating narrative. I had to return this audio book at only around 20%. I'll pick up the actual book someday and read it myself.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Melissa Ostrowercha 09-04-17
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    "riveting."

    very thorough history, obviously well researched. riveting story. made me really know the people involved.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lisa MacK 09-04-17
    Lisa MacK 09-04-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Great story, bad storytelling"

    Although I enjoyed the historical telling of the Donner party, the way it was read was comical at times. The performance sounded like he was drunk, with several mispronounced words and utterances that sounded like he was just waking up or on his fifth whisky.
    If you are at all interested in this account, it is worth a listen, but it should have been read by someone other than this author:/

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Captain Insano 09-01-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Captivating "

    I was reluctant to get this book. I had studied about the Donner party many times in high school and college. I enjoyed this book and listened intently as I was pulled into each of the lives of those who traveled. I highly recommend this book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Dennis Hinkamp Logan, Utah USA 08-28-17
    Dennis Hinkamp Logan, Utah USA 08-28-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Sheds new light on a often told historical event "
    Would you listen to The Best Land Under Heaven again? Why?

    The best part is that the book started from the very beginning of the trip in Illinois


    Any additional comments?

    I can't believe that the author researched this book and still mis-pronounced Weber as "Webber" many times. As a Utahan it grated on my ears. Surely fact checkers work on audio books too.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lenore 08-25-17
    Lenore 08-25-17 Member Since 2016
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    "A lesson in life and death"

    Beautifully and eloquently written and narrated. Difficult to take at times, understanding the immense suffering of those who chose to risk everything in hopes of discovering the great West.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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