The Best Land Under Heaven

The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny
Narrated by: Michael Wallis
Length: 16 hrs and 17 mins
Categories: History, Americas
4.5 out of 5 stars (305 ratings)

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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 listeners say about The Best Land Under Heaven

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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.

6 people found this helpful

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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.

3 people found this helpful

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Michael Wallis brings the goods

I was looking for a quality text about the Donner-Reed party and almost didn't get this book because of the many reviews complaining about narration style. I think given the subject matter (the history of the Old West), Michael Wallis is perfect for the role, and reads his account with the gusto of an old trail hand or woodsman spinning a yarn by the fireside. Is it crisp and polished? No. Is it hella entertaining? You know it. This is an incredible book, loaded with historical detail, primary sources, and a very helpful broader context of settlement and Manifest Destiny to flesh out (pun in bad taste but definitely not intended) the actions and decisions of the party. The story moves with the runaway energy of a thriller, and at times has the gravity and pathos of a tragedy. Don't pass up a fantastic listen.

2 people found this helpful

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Increbible Story that Captivated my entire family!

What made the experience of listening to The Best Land Under Heaven the most enjoyable?

My family listened to this book on a recent road trip from Texas to California and back. We loved travelling through some of the landscape that the book was set in. The author's ability to describe the historical aspects of the journey as well as the personalities and emotions of the characters made the book compelling to listen to for hours on end! We still talk about the characters and have a deeper appreciation for the pioneers of our country who risked everything to follow their dreams. Such a good read and family book!

2 people found this helpful

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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.

2 people found this helpful

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Great book, life changing.

I thought the author did a fantastic job of telling the history of the times and the details of the individual lives made the book hard to stop listening to. I loved it despite the author having obvious liberal bias towards Indians and manifest destiny. That could be overlooked as it is just part of our society today. I highly recommend!

1 person found this helpful

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Capturing, intense and heartbreaking.

An incredible tale. Like most people I learned about the infamous Donner Party in three paragraphs written in a history text book. Never being told the back story about the people, who they were, and who they were not. A tale pieced together through individual accounts, diaries and letters describing their dreams, talents, shortcomings and the twisted path that led them to a place of no return, and of survivors; forever changed. The most profound individuals to me were the women, each having unimaginable courage, grit, and devotion.The tale was set within the perverted and recklessly coined notion of Manifest Destiny, cast like a pebble in a pond that ripples even still.

A highly recommend read.

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Historically Accurate Account

The author/historian Michael Wallis shares his superb job of researching, writing, and narrating the heartbreaking account of the Donner Reed party and their courage, determination and tragedy while stranded in the Sierras. This tale is not for the fainthearted or squeamish.
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Great explanation of a strange event

I never really looked into the Dinner Party event. This story starts with the family history of many of those who participated and carries through to detail the expedition and finally what many of the survivors did after the expedition. Also included is brief commentary on US/Mexican war and Manifest Destiny. A great read!!

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Harrowing, breathtaking, heart wrenching goodness..

An astonishing tale that will have you holding your breath for what seems like a year of hardships

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  • michael j rayner
  • 06-01-20

Enthralling

Without doubt the best none fiction book I have ever heard on audible. Loved the gravelly voice of Michael Wallis, full of details and information on the people in the Donner Party that make you care about who they were and why. Sometimes emotional too. 👍