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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 (39 )
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4.4 (39 )
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4.1 (39 )
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Performance
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  •  
    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
  •  
    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
  •  
    brdsongs 07-02-17
    brdsongs 07-02-17 Listener Since 2004
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    "A writer who reads hiw own work"
    Would you try another book from Michael Wallis and/or Michael Wallis?

    Probably not. I'm at the tenth chapter and his voice, initially nice sounding, fails to be expressive enough to keep my interest on the long run.


    Would you be willing to try another book from Michael Wallis? Why or why not?

    See above. His writing includes listings of lots of people, places and facts in a rather dry manner.


    Would you be willing to try another one of Michael Wallis’s performances?

    Certainly not.


    What character would you cut from The Best Land Under Heaven?

    I haven't read far enough yet. I may or may not finish this book.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Richard Deardoff Amissville, Virginia United States 07-18-17
    Richard Deardoff Amissville, Virginia United States 07-18-17 Member Since 2009
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    "Terrible Narration"

    The narration (by the author) is delivered in an incredibly dramatic fashion, the audio equivilent of the overblown acting in silent movies. I tried increasing the speed, but the story doesn't hold my interest -- the background to the events is overlong.

    I made it about an hour before giving up. My wife heard and interview with the author on NPR and recommended it -- and it should have interested me. It did not.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    T. Redwood Santa Cruz 07-14-17
    T. Redwood Santa Cruz 07-14-17 Member Since 2015

    tredwood

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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.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amy orefield, PA United States 07-13-17
    Amy orefield, PA United States 07-13-17 Member Since 2014
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    "great book"

    a complete picture of settlers journey from the beginning of their lives, hard to keep track of all names though. wonderfully written and read. great history story

    0 of 0 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.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Lou Marlo South Florida, USA 07-10-17
    Lou Marlo South Florida, USA 07-10-17 Member Since 2016
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    "Both awful and wonderful!"

    Couldn't stop listening to this meticulously researched piece of history even while gasping or cringing at some of it.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Adam Fohrman 07-10-17 Member Since 2017
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    "great story"

    It took me some time to get used to the authors reading of the book... occasionally he sounded slurry...

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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