How should Americans process the tale of the Donner party? The popular idea of cannibalism as twisted metaphor for Manifest Destiny surfaced in newspaper accounts even before all those stranded at Truckee Lake were rescued. The incredible facts of the story, however, transcend all attempts at glibness, as the reader is left at the end of this book with only one simple, timeless question: How much misery can the human heart hold?
In an effort to put survival cannibalism into context, the author argues that there are no easy answers to the enigma: “Although most accounts of the Donner Party portray the members’ actions as either heroic or villainous,” Michael Wallis writes, “it can be argued that there were no shades of black and white, but only gray.” But, in fact, one of the enduring aspects of this tale is the vivid presence of both heroes and villains – in particular, mother, school teacher, nature-lover Tamzene Donner; murderous, wife-abusing pariah Lewis Keseberg – the first almost certainly murdered by the second, although no proof exists.
“Can survival cannibalism be regarded not merely as an excusable act, but as an act of great moral courage?”
There is also no proof that Tamzene partook of human flesh – although, again, it seems likely that she did. To save her children’s lives, she fed them human meat, and reportedly her dying husband advised her to do so, even if his own body was desecrated in the process. Tamzene’s healthy appearance when the second relief mission arrived at Alder Creek suggests that she did – but if morality is indeed “gray,” it also seems appropriate to ask: Didn’t the children’s lives depend on the mother staying alive and strong? And under these circumstances, can survival cannibalism be regarded not merely as an excusable act, but as an act of great moral courage?
There are, of course, no easy answers to any of these terrible questions, which no human should ever have to face. But Tamzene’s life remains legendary among those who study the fate of the Donners and the other families who joined the wagon train originating from Springfield, Ill., and, after a long, tortuous journey, coming so heartbreakingly close to their California destination. Tamzene kept a journal of the trip, complete with botanical sketches, of which no trace has ever been found. A “holy grail,” according to Wallis, for all those mesmerized by the tale and her life. Of all the unbearable facts in this story, the most unbearable of all is that Tamzene Donner did not make it in the end, no trace of her body ever found, nothing of her journal to this day recovered.
Be that as it may, the reader will quickly discover in this book that survival cannibalism is far from being the worst of it – the Donner-Reed wagon train was Lord of the Flies on the prairie long before it ever reached the Sierras. The story has no shortage of villains and heroes, including Charles Stanton, the young bachelor who made repeated attempts to save his fellow passengers’ lives before succumbing to cold and starvation in the Sierras; William Foster, who murdered two fellow-traveling Miwok Indians with the intent to cannibalize; John Stark, matchless volunteer of the third relief, described by a Donner party member as a rescuer of “unexcelled courage”; and Charles Stone, volunteer of the second relief, who chose to leave children behind in order to more conveniently steal their belongings.
“Every word emerges with charged meaning in this absolutely gripping tale of American optimism and hubris, human hope and folly.”
Reviewers have described The Best Land Under Heaven as the most definitive, complete account of the Donner party tragedy to date. So if readers are looking for all the facts as best we presently know them, this is the book to buy. For those unfamiliar with the details of the story, who prefer to move quickly to the heart of the matter – i.e., when things start to go bad – the author’s strategy of providing broad historical context may be somewhat frustrating. The best approach, in my opinion, is to read the text in conjunction with the appendices that follow, which provide the background and fate of all players. Far from being a spoiler, these addenda make the narrative easier to follow and in fact add to the human drama. There are too many twists and turns in the tale for such a reference either to spoil or to be unnecessary. It’s also helpful to know that photos and other illustrations, although not included in the table of contents, appear at the end of the digital text.
The best advice I can offer, however, is to read the book twice. On second reading, every word emerges with charged meaning in this absolutely gripping tale of American optimism and hubris, of human hope, folly, joy, and despair.