Book Review: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party, Skila Brown (2016)

October 19th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“The men think they’re following a trail … But I know.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for cannibalism and domestic violence.)

There’s only a little gap between rain and snow,
an open window of sunshine to go,
it all must be timed just right
or it will go all wrong,
like a cup of tea that slips
from too hot to too cold
without leaving enough time
in between to drink it.

Imagine.
He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

When you picture the Donner Party, of course cannibalism is the first thing to come to mind. OF COURSE. After all, it’s THE reason this ill-fated expedition made it into the history books: the gruesome lengths that many of the surviving members had to go to to stay alive. And yet murder and cannibalism isn’t where their stories begin, or end. There’s also romance, adventure, and optimism. A can-do spirit and the pursuit of the American Dream. Even if this dream is built on the backs of those who lived here before us.

(Several times, the caravan’s livestock is freed/stolen by “Indians” – who I couldn’t help but root for – and Brown briefly mentions the indigenous populations in the Author’s Note. When the killing starts, it’s the group’s Native American guides who are the first to go.)

In To Stay Alive, Skila Brown reconstructs these events through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when she and her family set out from their home in Lacon, Illinois to make a new life California. The already-arduous journey turned deadly when the Donner-Reed Party, as it came to be known, found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, just a hundred-odd miles shy of their destination. While the majority of the party made camp next to Truckee Lake in anticipation of the spring thaw, supplies quickly dwindled, and so a small group set out on foot to find help. When they ran out food, they were forced to eat the dead to survive – first those felled by starvation and hypothermia, and then those murdered for food. (I’m not sure how closely To Stay Alive reflects reality, but the whole murdering-people-for-food thing seems a little more controversial IRL.)

To Stay Alive is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it’s a novel written in verse and 2) its intended audience, which is middle grade readers.

I’m generally a fan of stories told in verse, and I think it works quite nicely here. This is a harrowing and gory tale, yet the narrative structure – and the simple, sparse language it demands – kind of prevents us from dwelling too heavily on the more sensational details. And this also mirrors the narrator’s own experience: think too hard on the fact that you’re devouring your former traveling mate’s right thigh, and your stomach is apt to reject the nourishment you so need.

Some readers will no doubt consider this subject matter completely inappropriate for younger readers. Yet Brown handles the cannibalism with sensitivity and nuance. On a more personal note, I’d like to say that I hated history in middle and high school. It was easily one of my least favorite subjects, maybe only after geology. As an adult, though, I love it – a renaissance sparked by James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. History – the real, raw, unsanitized, morally complex history that real people really lived through – is damn fascinating. I would’ve loved this book as a kid – and, perhaps more importantly, it might have inspired me to do some additional research on my own.

The Graveses were just one of many families that joined the Donner-Reed caravan traveling west that season; but theirs isn’t the first (or even the second) name to pop into your head when thinking back on the Donner Party. So Brown’s choice to focus on Miss Graves is an interesting one. Described as “the belle of the Donner Party,” Mary Anne was linked to several of the eligible bachelors who accompanied her, including John Snyder and Charles Stanton. While this is all conjecture, Brown uses it as an opportunity to inject a little romance (and female empowerment) into the story.

The book begins in spring, with rebirth and excitement and optimism in the air; as exhaustion sets in, summer ushers in tedium: clothes stiff with sweat and grime, feet laid bare by worn shoes, and a sense of doom as supplies run low and the livestock falls away. Yet even this is a source of nostalgic musings when Mary Ann faces the horrors of that winter. Brown expertly captures the shifting moods of the Graves family, and the caravan as whole. I especially loved the unexpected moments of humor between Mary Ann, her sister Sarah, and her newfound friend Amanda.

The landscape is captivating AF; you could almost say that the Great Plains and western deserts are their own characters. I especially loved watching the caravan pass through Missouri; I relocated to the area after I graduated college (and have lived here longer than I care to admit!). I actually adopted dogs six and seven, Mags and her son Finnick, from the St. Joe pound. So the name drop gave me a kick.

I was lucky enough to read an early copy of To Stay Alive, but the formatting threw me off a bit: some of the line breaks were wonky, others questionable; some of the verse even appeared as a block of text, as in a paragraph. I’m certain that this will be cleaned up for the final version, but it did interrupt the flow. I enjoyed the verse, but think it will positively sing when it appears as intended.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Mr. Keseberg abuses his wife, but everyone pretends not to hear; after all, the year is 1846, and domestic violence is a “private” matter. Except for Mr. Reed, who lectures him that it’s not the “Christian thing” to do; but, as Mary Ann notes, “Mr. Reed might have thought he was helping that man’s poor wife, who is round with another child, but he has made it worse.”

Luis and Salvador are two “Indian” guides who were sent to help lead the caravan to Sutter’s Fort. They accompany the group that leaves by foot to find rescue and, when they resort to cannibalism, Luis and Salvador – who are both in poor health by this time – are the first to be murdered for food. Mary Ann tries to warn them, and they do sneak away from the group in the dead of night, but they’re eventually discovered and shot.

Animal-friendly elements: Nope, not a one.

 

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