Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence
Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award
A Publishers Weekly Holiday Guide History Pick
“A book so gripping it can scarcely be put down.... Superb.” —New York Times Book Review
"WESTWARD HO! FOR OREGON AND CALIFORNIA!"
In the eerily warm spring of 1846, George Donner placed this advertisement in a local newspaper as he and a restless caravan prepared for what they hoped would be the most rewarding journey of a lifetime. But in eagerly pursuing what would a century later become known as the "American dream," this optimistic-yet-motley crew of emigrants was met with a chilling nightmare; in the following months, their jingoistic excitement would be replaced by desperate cries for help that would fall silent in the deadly snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
We know these early pioneers as the Donner Party, a name that has elicited horror since the late 1840s. With The Best Land Under Heaven, Wallis has penned what critics agree is “destined to become the standard account” (Washington Post) of the notorious saga. Cutting through 160 years of myth-making, the “expert storyteller” (True West) compellingly recounts how the unlikely band of early pioneers met their fate. Interweaving information from hundreds of newly uncovered documents, Wallis illuminates how a combination of greed and recklessness led to one of America’s most calamitous and sensationalized catastrophes. The result is a “fascinating, horrifying, and inspiring” (Oklahoman) examination of the darkest side of Manifest Destiny.
Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis (David Crockett) reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism. Though nearly synonymous with cannibalism in pop culture lore, the Donner Party's 1846 1847 journey receives from Wallis a balanced treatment, showing that the surviving members who chose cannibalism did so as a last resort and largely because saving their starving children was their priority. Wallis effectively mixes survivors' accounts, trip diaries, and other contemporary sources, delving deep into the backgrounds and dynamics of the multiple families involved in the four-months-long winter wilderness encampment. For example, Tamzene Donner transformed from a botanist who planned to open a school into a resilient mother and wife who fed her children human flesh and refused to leave her desperately ill husband during three different rescue efforts. Wallis explains that the caravan suffered multiple setbacks, including livestock thefts by Native Americans and an unusually long and harsh winter. The leaders also routinely made bad decisions, such as trusting an untested "shortcut" promoted by an armchair guidebook author. The Donner Party's struggles and determination continue to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion.
Well sourced and restrained.