In the case of the Donner party, the truth is stranger than fiction. The story of the wagon train that left Illinois for California along an ill-fated route has horrified historians and storytellers alike. This is why, at first, I was surprised to see this book for children. Surely such a topic should be taboo for children’s literature. After reading this book, however, I was wonderfully surprised at the level of humanity, dignity, and care which Calabro took to present this tragic story in a way that children will remember the history, and the hardships, but will not come away with fears of cannibalism. Calabro’s language and treatment of the story provided dignity to the members of the Donner party, the author, and the readers. While I would not suggest this book for any child, simply because of the topic, I find this book to be perfectly reasonable for a child of the proper age who has interest in the wagon trains, and the perils of moving west in those days.
This informational book is told mostly from the experience of Virginia Reed, whose father was one of the primary members of the Donner party caravan. It was his stubbornness that pushed the Donner party into the “shortcut” that ended up stranding most of the caravan. The book follows the sad and often disquieting history of the wives, husbands, bachelors, children, and pets who encountered every possible obstacle, roadblock, and decision, and left soo much behind them on their trek.
Again, I was amazed at the dignity and humanity offered to the reader and characters from the author. Calabro obviously wants the reader to understand that these people were human beings who simply wanted to live in the good land of California with their families, and did everything they could to get there. While the deaths are still tragic, Calabro does not brush over the deaths, the cannibalism, or the accusations and hurt feelings of the different members of the Donner Party. She does not dwell on the tragic, but she provides a clear and understanding perception of what real people will do to keep themselves and their families alive.
While I would not keep this book lying randomly around my own house, or in my children’s room, I would certainly recommend it for a child of the right age and maturity. Western Expansion was dangerous, treacherous, and often tragic, and this book displays the glories, adventures, and the tragedies in the same humane and dignified light.