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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West
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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West [Kindle Edition]

Ethan Rarick

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Product Description


"His is the first significant book, written, like Stewart's, in a novelistic mode and likely to gain popular readership, to incorporate this new data.... Rarick's account is not really about science; it's about humanity.... Rarick has done his homework."--New York Times Book Review

"This sober, unflinching look at one of the great tragedies of America's pioneering past tells us a great deal that is new about the Donner Party's trials. Rarick scythes away the myths of one of the nation's better-known sagas, and offers up this horrific but ennobling tale in all its freshly researched detail. Readers take heed: this is a tough book, but a gripping one."--Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa

"Rarick takes an evenhanded and thorough approach to the story of the Donners' covered-wagon migration across the country and their winter entrapment in the Sierras. His telling is evocative and easy to read."--Seattle Times

"Desperate Passage is the most up-to-date narrative history of the Donner Party available today and as such is a welcome addition to the literature. General readers, especially those who know of the Donner party only as the cannibal wagon train, will undoubtedly find it a fascinating read."--Overland Journal

"Many books tell the Donner story, but none digs as deep for the truth as Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West.... With personal details...bringing a human touch to the story, Desperate Passage succeeds in rescuing the Donner Party from 162 years of infamy."--Tacoma News Tribune

"A history of the first rank - precise, restrained and compelling.... Desperate Passage makes a gripping tale, and Rarick makes a scrupulous guide."--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"With a reporter's doggedness and a scholar's thoroughness, Rarick has clarified the historical details. ... Rarick makes this compelling frontier drama all the more so."--National Geographic Adventure Magazine

"A clean, chilling cautionary story of misjudgment and perseverance.... Rarick deals with this most extreme of issues [cannibalism] with the evenhandedness and lack of melodrama that characterize the book throughout." --Houston Chronicle

"A well-written, copiously documented account."--Deseret Morning News

"Reads like a novel, and for those who are drawn to American history...coupled with one of the most grisly survival tales in history, then this is the absolute book for you."--Monsters and Critics website

"Desperate Passage is a wise book, not only a horror or an adventure story but a universal and timeless tale about acts of desperation performed by average people under extreme conditions - a situation that can befall coal miners in Utah, soccer teams in the Andes, occupants of the World Trade Center, or readers of the book."--Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West

"Rarick illuminates this classic America stage through a deftly told drama of courage and cowardice...with a fascinating cast ranging from the iconic American Everyman to the astonishing scoundrels."--Van Gordon Sauter, former President, CBSNews

"Like the foreboding passages in an operatic overture, the ordeal of the Donner Party warned Americans that tragedy could not be banished from this newly acquired province. In this meticulously detailed narrative, Ethan Rarick presents the full horror and bravery of a dystopian episode that would forever qualify the California experience."--Kevin Starr, University of Southern California, author of Americans and the California Dream

"The story of the ill-fated Donner Party's trek across the country is the reverse image of Lewis and Clark's: seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong -- from bad leadership to disastrous choices, from fatal accidents to murderous fights, and finally a ghastly ordeal in the Sierra snows. It's a remarkable story for all generations, and with the advantage of updated research and a keen eye for detail, Ethan Rarick builds a quick-moving narrative."--Dayton Duncan, author of Out West: An American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail

Product Description

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.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 740 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0195305027
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (Jan. 4 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000SKB7I6
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #161,492 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  141 reviews
89 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fatal Mistakes Feb. 7 2008
By Carol Berger - Published on
History was never my favorite subject. In fact, I managed to get a Master's Degree without taking one history class in college. As I have grown older and visited historic sites while traveling in the western United States, I have become much more interested in history, particularly of the 1800's in America and of this part of the country. Luckily there is no lack of good books on the subject to pick up where my junior high school history class left off. One of the best of these is Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick, released early in 2008.

In the fall of 1846 the Donner party of wagons was the last to try to cross the Sierra Nevada on the way to California. 81 men, women, and children were trapped in the mountains for months by a snowfall that halted their progress west. Desperate Passage is the story of those who survived the ordeal and how they did it, and of those who did not and how they died.

Rarick starts by introducing us to the members of the party, telling us of their lives up until May 12, 1846, when they left Independence, Missouri, and of their hopes and dreams for a new life in California. He chronicles their journey westward with its hard work and deprivations, and their apparently fateful decision to take the untried Hastings Cutoff. He details their winter in the snowy mountains without sufficient provisions; successful and unsuccessful attempts by some of the members to go for help; the death, desperation, and sacrifices of both the members of the party and some of their would-be rescuers; and the ultimate rescue early in 1847 of the last of the survivors.

Based on "fresh archaeological evidence" and recent research, Desperate Passage includes maps, pictures, and a list of "dramatis personae" to help the reader keep things straight. A rapid read, it is an engrossing, well-written, and thorough book, and a must-read for anyone interested in history - even us Johnny-come-latelys.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wrong choices with sad consequences. April 5 2008
By Janlynn - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've read many accounts of the Donner Party over the years. This is the first well-documented account I have found. The tragedy is told in a straight forward way and the writing makes for a fast read. The only thing I wish the author had included is a more detailed map (or maps) of the Donner party's path.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful research makes an intriguing story even better Sept. 22 2008
By Schuyler T Wallace - Published on
Ethan Rarick's intriguing account of the Donner party's tortured attempt to reach California in the winter of 1846-47 is honest and well-written. In DESPERATE PASSAGE he has eschewed the tendency towards sensationalism found in so many other books about the emigrants and has relied on extensive research to tell the story of the small band of pioneers stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains and its struggle for survival.

This book has many stories of heroism and cowardice, industry and sloth, resourcefulness and ignorance. The enigma of the way the group handled the dreadful conditions under which it eventually found itself is clearly laid out without being judgmental or overly lurid. When the Donner party is discussed today, cannibalism is the overriding theme attached to the story. Rarick certainly doesn't sugarcoat the details, but presents them in such a way that the reader can understand abandonment, homicide, or the eating of human flesh without feeling the revulsion that normally accompanies such ideas.

We often hear of humans suffering through hunger, filth, and horrific climatic conditions. The vast majority of us haven't actually experienced those types of conditions in person. It's more likely that we've read about them while munching on an apple and hearing the wind and rain assault the exterior of our comfortable houses. Or perhaps we've seen the starving children in third world countries pleading for help on television screens. Rarick will change all that for you. In this riveting account of real life suffering, your apple will not taste as sweet nor your coziness be as comforting. You'll actually feel the pain caused by hunger and cold. The cooking up of a loved one's liver might be a little more acceptable.

The sheer number of characters involved in the Donner story and the number of incidents makes the narration hard to follow. I had a little difficulty following who did what when, but that is my only criticism of this work.

As I've said many times, research makes the book. Rarick has done his and he has included some modern findings that shed new light on conditions found and decisions made in the Sierra blizzards that plagued the Donner party. His compilation of this enormous amount of background material into such a tight and compelling report is truly the mark of a great writer. I strongly urge you to read this book.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Yet on the Donner Party Sept. 21 2008
By Truckee Hob - Published on
I live in the area where the Donner Party was trapped, and have read almost all that has been written on the subject. This is by far the most complete and accurate book I have read so far about this tragedy!!!
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Amazing Nov. 25 2008
By Steven James - Published on
This book was so utterly amazing in every aspect that I won't be able to come up with the words to do it justice. The trials that The Donner Party were forced to endure are beyond comprehension, yet the author makes you feel like you are on the journey with them. The sense of place and time makes for some eerie and extremely uncomfortable reading, but it also makes one appreciate lying in a comfortable environment merely "reading" about it. The updated information about The Donner Party also sets this book apart from the rest of the stories about this ill-fated journey. I've been interested in this story ever since I was a little kid and we were driving from Washington State to Disneyland and my mom was telling us about the Donner Party. Since then I've always searched out information about them, but "Desperate Passage" is the best I've ever found. I highly recommend this book. One of the best books of the year, hands down.

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