I’ve always been fascinated by the Donner Party. Hence, I was interested in learning more about it. However, this presented a little bit of a challenge. Many of the accounts of their ill fated migration are not written by a historian. The Best Land Under Heaven is an exception. It is written by historian Michael Wallis. Thus, he can put the trip in the proper context of it’s time. Furthermore, he can be relied upon to deal more accurately with some of the controversial elements.
I don’t want to give too much away. However, I must address this aspect quickly. Cannibalism. If you don’t want the details revealed, skip this next section. If, however you’re interest depends on how this aspect is addressed, read below.
- Yes. There was cannibalism.
- No. The coverage isn’t excessively gruesome.
- Yes. 2 Native Americans were killed for food.
- No. There were allegations that one member killed a child for food. However, this is unlikely.
- Unrelated. The Best Land Under Heaven actually refers to Kentucky, not California. Hence, this journey clearly wasn’t the first time they were wrong.
The Best Land Under Heaven
The book gets off to a slow start. There is a lot of background information on the Donner family. The Reeds garner less coverage, however it takes some time to get to the trip. It’s worth listening to the background stories to fully appreciate the migration. Hence, while your interest may lie solely in the Sierra Nevada’s, I reccomend you muscle through the first few chapters.
Once the journey starts, the book gets much more interesting. The Best Land Under Heaven gives a detailed perspective of life on the trail. Furthermore, it gives a greater perspective to life in general in those times. Here are a few examples of things that surprised me.
- California was part of Mexico at the time of the journey. Hence, the Americans headed there were illegally immigrating to Mexico.
- Abraham Lincoln briefly considered joining the party. However, he would have been going to Oregon. Mary Todd wanted no part of it.
- Reed’s mother-in-law died on the trail. She was related to Mary Todd Lincoln.
You have heard people say “It’s a small world”. It truly was, in terms of relationships at that time. However, in terms of travel it was a huge world.
What caused the disaster?
Several factors played a key role in the calamity that befell the party.
- Bad information. Hastings, who wrote a book about the short cut, had apparently never taken it.
- Bad intentions. One immigrant sent a warning to the party. It was withheld by a trader who didn’t want to lose business.
- Early snowfall. Had the party arrived 2 days earlier, they likely would have made it.
- Resignation. A chance to escape presented itself. However, the party seemed resigned to their fate. Hence, they let the small window close.
There are, of course, other factors that came into play. Injuries were a large problem. Moreover, infighting caused the party to split into factions. However, it seems that many of these could have been overcome. What is clear is that without the book giving them bad information on the short cut, they would have safely made it.
How does The Best Land Under Heaven address cannibalism?
Obviously, this is a taboo subject. However, Wallis deals with it in a graceful and historical manner. He doesn’t gloss over the subject, yet he doesn’t dwell on it too long. Moreover, he gives historical records from several perspectives to back up his claims. Diaries of party members are used. Also, he references accounts from rescuers. Furthermore, he compiles multiple sources to both confirm and debunk different accounts.
The book satisfied me that it is an accurate portrayal. Obviously, I can’t confirm nor deny. However, it has the ring of truth. It’s clear that his research and sources are exhaustive. No stone seems to have been left unturned.
Remember, this isn’t a dark tabloid look into a single event. It is a historical look at the lives of the people involved. Moreover, it is a window through which to view the difficulties and triumphs of the period of Manifest Destiny.
This book does justice to the period. It humanizes the victims of this tragedy. To be clear, they were all victimized. Even the adolescent survivors bore the scars for life. This fact is evident in the first chapter. Wallis notes an event attended by a 70 year old who had been a child on the journey. In her pocket there was candy and crackers. She never again left home without food.
This book is a must read if you are interested in the story of the Donner Party. However, it is also a good source if you simply want to understand life on the Oregon and California trails. You don’t have to be a tragedy junkie to enjoy this great read.
The narration is also done by Michael Wallis. Regular readers of my reviews know that I’m rarely a fan of this. The same holds true here. However, he doesn’t do a bad job. His voice is excellent. Yet the reading is a little slow. Don’t let that discourage you from the audiobook. He certainly does a passable job. It just could have been better with a professional narrator.