Top critical review
Chilling & harrowing
March 31, 2018
“One by one, feathery flakes landed on cold blankets and buffalo robes, on sweat-slicked hair, on shoulders turned to the sky, on soft cheeks—each flake delicate and slight, but each lending its almost imperceptible weight to the horror of what was about to happen.”
Once you remove the trappings of our accustomed civilization, we are all not far from savagery and death.
The descriptions of the landscape are so glorious, of the lifestyle so detailed, that it’s like you are right there with the smelly, upright, terribly brave frontiersmen and women who somehow took on this amazing and gruelling journey. The book appears exhaustively researched. There’s a comprehensive series of end notes to supplement the text, but the e-book doesn’t have any notations to indicate them while you’re reading, so unless you are truly hardcore and willing to go back cross-reference them, you have no context for them by the time you get to them at the end.
A higher rating eludes me also because of the inaccuracy of the author’s assertions about the mechanisms of starvation. He describes the typical, “hangry” behaviour of someone who subsists on the USDA’s unhealthy 70%+ carbohydrate diet made up principally of sugars. In the middle of the 19th century (and certainly on a journey like this), the participants would have been eating a low carbohydrate diet as a matter of course and quite effectively fat adapted even before they started, and therefore not relying on a glocose burning metabolism (as starvation victims always are anyway, before the end), and this would actually account for why they lasted as long as they did. The author has also made the common error of mistaking ketosis (a natural and protective condition) with ketoacidosis (an unnatural state suffered by diabetics with simultaneously high blood glucose and high ketone production). Ketosis is actually therapeutic and could in fact save a lot of lives, but this persistent myth of danger promoted by the medical industry and the grain producers keeps coming up. But I digress.
“No animals were harmed in the making of this story.” ...Not. Poor helpless creatures.
The Donner party soldiered on through countless tragedies and physical and mental hardships, without turning back. They were doing the best they could with what they had. What manner of regret did they feel at having left it all behind for this reward?
It makes me think of all these people nowadays who think they are so badass, flying out to California to hike the PCT with all the latest accoutrements and GPS, having their granola and dried veggie curries shipped out to themselves at waypoints in the trail. And I’m not judging. I myself hiked two late October days in Algonquin in pouring rain with totally unsuitable footwear and a too-light sleeping bag (both my own mistakes), and I truly thought I was going to die shivering in my tent. The hike was a total of perhaps 22 km (albeit up and down over very challenging, rocky forested terrain), and I was so happy to see the car waiting in the lot at the end of it that I nearly cried. Totally badass, indeed.
This is a horror story, plain and simple, and all the more so because it is true.