A fascinating topic (the doomed Donner Party) that's well-researched, but somewhat indifferently written. I didn't really like the cannibal parts.
The subject matter is extremely grim but the book is well-researched and -written. It's illustrative of the truism that a disaster is made up of lack of preparation, a concatenation of a myriad of small errors and mis-calculations and some bad luck. What happened at the end of the trek is well-known. The book explores and clearly sets out how the end rose out of the beginning.
If you love well written history backed up by solid research this is an author to read. The gory details are well known (the true ones and the exaggerated) but the story of their journey and how the families on the trail reacted as things got worse and worse is fascinating. The strength of some of the individuals (especially the women desperate to keep their children alive) is absorbing and heartbreaking.
Simon Worrall writes a very interesting article in the National Geographic based on his interview with the author Michael Wallis; Mr. Wallis's research including interviews with descendants of the Donner party; the political climate at the time; as well as the settling of the west known as Manifest Destiny. A book to go on my list for sure.
My review in a single sentence: The Best Land Under Heaven is a detailed, humanizing portrait of a doomed American migration that underlines the fragility of the human condition.
I, like most people, learned about the Donner Party from a textbook. The gruesome details of their fate are a byline in the narrative of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. In this book, Michael Wallis pulls back the layers of myth and exaggeration and tells the story of the Donner and Reed families. Once I spent some time with them and got to know their dreams and aspirations, each poor decision or stroke of bad luck filled me with dread rather than the derision I felt all those years ago in the classroom.
When their fate in the Sierra Nevada mountains became clear, I was not filled with macabre fascination but with great sorrow. The details of their survival that terrible winter are present in detail, made all the more powerful by the knowledge of who these people were. Their story is framed within the larger context of Manifest Destiny and the arrogant righteousness that blossomed in many westward pioneers.
The narrative that leads the reader on a journey from Illinois to California flows easily thanks to Mr. Wallis' writing style; I read the entire book in two sittings. One might expect such a historical accounting to be dry, but if you've read any of Michael's other books you know he weaves a wonderful tale. The research undertaken was extensive and it shows through the detail present across the pages.
It's a piece of American history, a showcase of frontier survival, and a powerful cautionary tale. Highly recommended.
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