Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Indifferent Stars Above - Daniel James Brown

The Indifferent Stars Above
This week, I'm partnering with TLC Book Tours to bring you a new book every day! They span a wide range of genre, so make sure to check back each day for a new review; you're bound to find something you'll enjoy.

Title: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party
Author: Daniel James Brown
Publication Date: 4/28/09
Pages: 352
How I Found It: TLC Book Tours
Date Completed: 10/5/15

Summary: Brown follows the story of the infamous Donner party through his engaging narrative nonfiction style. 

What I Thought: As most people in America, I had a vague knowledge of the Donner party. "They ate each other to survive winter in the mountains, right?" Yeah, that's pretty much what it boils down to (no pun intended), but Brown takes this story far beyond its historical hook. Brown explores the lives and personalities of the people who were part of the doomed party traveling west to California and, more than anything, he looks at the chain of events that led them to their fateful decision. 

Brown focuses specifically on young newlywed Sarah Graves and her family. Sarah and her brand new husband decided to make the trek along with her parents and siblings, all hoping to start a new life together in the prosperous west. Focusing on Sarah specifically gave the book a lovely emotional base. It's easy to identify with Sarah and her young heart full of love and hope as she sets out on the journey. It makes the end result that much more tragic and impactful. 

Brown does a beautiful job weaving facts and explanation into the story of the travelers. He explores how each family or person ended up on the trail and how the Donner party came together. He details their entire journey, not just the months trapped in the mountains for which we all remember them. Brown pulls in plenty of historical and contextual information to help the modern reader truly understand the lives and decision making processes of these emigrants. I really appreciated that he spent some time on the philosophical questions surrounding the tragedy and compared the Donner party to others in similar circumstances throughout history. I thought that perspective added a lot without weighing down the narrative. Brown had a good balance of narrative, historical fact, and exploration of the "Why?" question.

Reading about people starving was really hard, I have to say. And, oddly and a little disgustingly, made me hungry. Of course, once I hit the point where the starving survivors turn to the bodies of their dead compatriots, any appetite I had harbored vanished entirely. Those sections were very hard to get through, not only because they turned my stomach, but also because they showed humans at their most base, animalistic level, one at which desperation for survival pushes even the most moral to unthinkable actions.

Browns spends a good deal of time discussing the catalysts which led each group of the party to the action of cannibalism. Yes, each group! That's one thing I hadn't realized at all; the Donner party ended up split into multiple factions and each one ended up eating other humans. That was the fact of the book for me, without a doubt. It's fascinating to watch each group come to that terrible conclusion and the psychological effects which follow. 

Brown also explores the idea of survival and what factors help humans keep going. Interestingly, in the Donner party, the men died at a much greater rate than the women, something you would not expect when looking at the situation exclusively at surface level. Yet, Brown explores why that was the case and how intangible elements like family, hope, and faith all contribute to human survival.

The book really left me feeling very sad, not only at the decisions made within the Donner party and the actions they took, but also at the futility of their situation. Brown talks a lot about how small changes could have saved their lives. Just a little bit more knowledge or understanding of science or landscape could have saved nearly every life. It made me incredibly thankful for the modern conveniences and understandings we have about the world around us. Certainly, it does not completely prevent us from ending up in similar circumstances, but it reduces our chances immensely. Plus, it all served as further validation for my aversion to camping.

Brown did an excellent job with this work. He made it hard to put down, even in the midst of the most gruesome, tragic moments. I learned so much and found myself much more interested in the story of Sarah Graves and her fellow travelers than I would have guessed. I definitely recommend reading this one yourself; it's a tragic, but beautiful combination of historical fact, heart, and human nature. If nothing else, you'll want to find out if Sarah Graves and her loved ones survive.

*To read other bloggers' thoughts on The Indifferent Stars Above, check out the full tour schedule.*

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: I wouldn't be surprised if I pick it up again at some point.
If You Liked This Try: The Secret Rooms / Angle of Repose / Year of Wonders

A Reduced Review: A well-written and well-researched look at the doomed Donner party, this narrative nonfiction work is a beautiful combination of historical fact, heart, and human nature.


  1. Nice review! I read & reviewed this one for the book tour as well. You mention some good points that Brown raised, particularly as you say: "how intangible elements like family, hope, and faith all contribute to human survival." The story was a nail-biter for sure. I can understand your aversion to camping. cheers.

  2. I really enjoy reading stories of polar exploration, and those are filled with starvation and death more often than not. This book reminds me of the polar exploration subgenre and I'm sure I'd really enjoy it.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!