The first novel I read about the Donner Party was James Houston’s Snow Mountain Passage, a very moving account which follows the life of Patty Reed, who was only eight when her family joined the wagon train in 1846, beyond the mountains into her California. I happened to meet Houston at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers shortly after the book was published and asked him why he thought the world might need another book about what is undoubtedly among the most closely-documented events of western history. Turns out that he lived in the house in Santa Cruz where Patty Reed was living when she died in 1923 at the age of 93. He didn’t know that fact when he moved in, but had been hearing her voice in the rooms and felt compelled to tell her story. A friend I hadn’t seen for a while had developed an interest in the whole Donner event during the years since we’d last seen each other, and he referred me to Vardis Fisher’s The Mothers. I feel fortunate to have more or less by accident come upon the rich experience of reading this pair of novels.
Unlike Snow Mountain Passage, which is intensely personal, drawn from Patty’s imagined “trail notes,” and focuses on the emotional response to a fairly small group of the unfortunates in this drama, The Mothers takes the long view. As you can see from the reproduction of the frontispiece above, Fisher calls it “An American Saga of Courage,” and adopts an omniscient view of the events, passing more or less Olympian judgment on his characters. As the title implies, his primary thesis is that those who have the most at stake–namely children and family–will demonstrate the most courage in extremis, and that you’ll find that courage manifested most strongly in mothers. He does acknowledge exceptions, allowing that passive or generous natures sometimes prevent the spirit of the true survivor from shining through. The kind of mother Fisher most admires would never, for example, have given up meat that her children might need, as Eleanor Eddy did, even to help her husband make it across the mountains for help. Still, it’s a fascinating hypothesis, and there are enough demonstrated examples in the tale to make you think that amiability and survival might be mutually exclusive.
The whole event is most famous, of course, for the cannibalism, a subject on which both Fisher and Houston tread fairly lightly. It was by no means the only instance of cannibalism on the frontier, but it’s the best known, the one most of us heard about in school. Both authors treat the horror of the taboo and show fascination with some of the rituals and procedures that develop once it’s been violated. One of the most touching moments of The Mothers is when a dying father suggests his daughters to eat his flesh to save themselves once he passes on. There are those who will eat only those who are already dead, others who aren’t willing to wait for death to come naturally. Still, the focus of both novels is on the struggle to survive and the inner character that the extreme conditions reveal rather than on the mutual munching.
Fisher joins the company during their trek along the Humboldt River, and his account provides a carefully detailed account of the elements that got them into such trouble. The carelessness and thoughtlessness are astounding. They lose precious animals because they allow them to wander without setting up guards. Then they get careless about guards and lose more even though they know the cattle are their lives. They continually bicker and refuse to cooperate in a situation where mutual support is all that will save them. Houston starts us off with the preparations to leave for the trip, showing how the Reeds’ insistence on outfitting a huge and heavy wagon nicknamed the “palace car” may have sown the initial seeds of the party’s destruction. Without the delays in getting started which the big vehicle caused and its lumbering pace, they might have beat the storms to the pass. However, the bitter quarrels about everything from the route to the disbursement of provisions showed in both novels that the endemic ability to truly join together and perhaps the lack of a strong leader doomed the enterprise from the beginning.
A reading of The Mothers and Snow Mountain Passage is a fine way to experience this piece of history-cum-mythology. The Mothers is very fine for its detailed historical, chronological record and for the descriptions of personality and character that certainly debunk the notion that our pioneer forebears were uniformly courageous and virtuous. Snow Mountain Passage demonstrates how a strong and loving spirit can transcend even the most horrible of human (inhuman?) experiences and find not only survival, but happiness. I wonder where I’d have fallen in that spectrum. I’m glad I won’t (at least I hope I won’t.) have to find out.