Review: THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (2009)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2009

Trigger warnings: Cannibalism, starvation, suicidal ideation, gore, dog eating

I read The Hunger earlier this year, and the story of the Donner party has fascinated me since. This book was also used for a bulk of the Last Podcast of the Left’s research.

While Katsu’s story gets up close and personal with some of the key players in the party, Brown’s account loosely follows the key players. He structures the account around Sarah Graves and her survival, and it is novelesque. There is hope, there is fear, there are terrible decisions, and battles happening both among members of the camp and against individual physiology. The fact that he visited the trail to see what winter was like and gave in sensory details maintained the illusion of fiction, until grounded contexts gently reminded the reader that, yes, all of this really happened in 1846.

What really makes this book stand out is the level of contextualization. Whenever a new roadblock met the Donner and Reed parties, he paused to go into more detail, providing some scientific evidence that only could have been discovered from more contemporary research. Examples include the general dangers posed to children on the wagon train regardless of ill-fated detours, discussing if the weather had been particularly deadly the year they spent at Truckee lake, the physiology behind starving, and more. The focus never left the actual humans who underwent this truly harrowing ordeal. What I also found interesting was that he would zoom out to discuss life in the U.S. as a contrast. It’s something I hadn’t encountered in my nonfiction, and I would love to see more.

An epic read that contextualizes what was happening to and around the tragic members of the Donner and Reed parties.


3 thoughts on “Review: THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (2009)

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  3. Pingback: Review: EMPIRE OF ICE AND STONE: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk by Buddy Levy (2022) | Jo Writes Fantasy

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