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Book Review: The Best Land Under Heaven

By (June 7, 2017) No Comment

The Best Land Under Heaven:

The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

by Michael Wallis

Liveright, 2017

“The story of the Donner Party,” writes historian and expert Old West chronicler Michael Wallis, “has come to symbolize the Great American Dream gone awry.” In his fantastic new book, The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, Wallis consistently broadens the typical focus of this quintessential American horror story, not just giving readers a moment-by-moment account of the infamous expedition of 1846 but also exploring the societal forces – the greed and the dreams – that prompted the expedition in the first place. “Were it not for a few wrong turns, bad directions, and fierce winter storms,” he writes, “the Donner Party would have been an unremarkable wagon train. But as it happened, it became a cautionary tale of Manifest Destiny and an unforgettable calamity.”

For the Donners, as for so many other pioneer families, the potential dangers of that cautionary tale were almost totally obscured by the lure of cheap cropland. The Reeds and the Donners and the rest of the eighty-seven people who headed out of Springfield, Illinois in April of 1846 were intent on traveling the long and arduous route to California in order to seize a bit of the country’s expansionist dreams for themselves, an aspirational element captured far more fully in these pages than it was in George Stewart’s classic 1936 Donner Party history, Ordeal by Hunger. Wallis’ book gives readers the why of the Donner Party in lengthy, heartbreaking detail.

They embark with high hopes, and they do everything they can to sustain those high hopes. But their blunders and detours cost them precious food stores and even more precious time before they have to face the Sierra Nevadas in winter. And waiting for them there is a winter of such brutal severity that it would have tested the survival skills of the most experienced backwoodsmen:

Death no longer startled the Donner Party, but it continued to stalk them in California. Now death tracked them from the Gulf of Alaska, ringed by mountains, forests, and tidewater glaciers that spilled onto the coastal plains. As clouds grew and low pressure strengthened, the jet stream was forced south along the coastline. Clouds loaded with moisture rolled over sea and shore. The storm punched to the east, cascading over the coastal ranges. It climbed the High Sierras as moist air inside the clouds rose and cooled.

Inevitably, of course, the core of the book is the horror at the heart of the Donner Party story, and Wallis, an extremely skilled chronicler of the American West in all its gaudy excesses, recounts that horror with a perfect balance of clinical reserve and dramatic manipulation. He seems particularly fascinated not just with the desperation of the group but with the many ways that desperation corrupted innocence, including the innocence of the expedition’s youngest members:

Reed and his men inspected the camp. At George Donner’s tent, they found the patriarch on the brink of death. He had become so weak that he could no longer lift his head or hands. Tamzene Donner – unlike her husband and their sister-in-law, Elizabeth Donner – was still strong enough to travel. Reed made note that Tamzene’s three daughters – Frances, Georgia, and Eliza – were stout and hearty. It was apparent that the Donner sisters’ robust appearance was the result of survival cannibalism. Like their cousins, the girls had stayed alive by eating the flesh of the dead teamsters and their Uncle Jake.

“Many of them no longer knew who they were or where they were,” Wallis writes about the Donner Party survivors. “Not only did they not recognize the land, they did not recognize themselves.” By the conclusion of The Best Land Under Heaven, readers have lived through those brutal dislocations in all their emotionally exhausting specifics. No more emotionally generous and historically literate history of the Donner Party has ever been written.