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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

Written by Daniel James Brown

Narrated by Michael Prichard


The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

Written by Daniel James Brown

Narrated by Michael Prichard

ratings:
4/5 (356 ratings)
Length:
10 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Apr 2, 2019
ISBN:
9780062962225
Format:
Audiobook

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Description

From the number one best-selling author of The Boys in the Boat comes an unforgettable epic of family, tragedy, and survival on the American frontier.

In April of 1846, 21-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of pioneers led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and 14 others set out for California on snowshoes and over the next 32 days endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, New York Times best-selling author Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most legendary events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah’s journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative.

Publisher:
Released:
Apr 2, 2019
ISBN:
9780062962225
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as ebookEbook

About the author

Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys in the Boat and Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.


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What people think about The Indifferent Stars Above

4.2
356 ratings / 43 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (5/5)
    Captivating story. Loved how he put so much effort into getting the real facts of the story to make it seem as real as possible. The ending is fabulous.
  • (4/5)
    Very interesting and more focused on the journey/trail history and survival mentality.
  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Read it, you won’t be disappointed.
    I didn’t start with a particular interest in either American history. I’d heard a short podcast that piqued my interest and decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did.
    Meticulously researched and detailed, it really brought the whole saga, from beginning to end, to life. What a story...
    Almost unimaginable in today’s modern world

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)
    People have been writing books about the Donner Party since the 1870s. For whatever reasons the story has captured imaginations for generations and has become one of the defining events of the settlement of western America and California in particular. Daniel Brown followed their trail, read the books, and wrote this the latest full-length treatment. It's likely the best available for a general audience. There were a lot of people in the party and it's easy to overwhelm with detail, Brown knows when to smooth things over. There are more detailed books if you want. Much of it takes place on the trail, describing places I have been (Ash Hollow) that look about the same today as they did then. Much concerns traveling across country in a wagon. They were actually pretty nice people except for a few. They were also tough as nails and did what it took to survive. Probably the most memorable event was when the two Indian guides refused to participate in the gory feast, turned their back and looked away. Not that we need another reminder that natives were often more civilized then Europeans, it was a poignant moment fortunately not forgotten. It's unclear why this story continued to fascinate - as true-life horror story? There isn't much to learn from it, Brown struggles to make it relevant, the main thing I learned was don't take the shortcut route across the Sierras in winter. Still, a good book and introduction to the Donner Party.
  • (5/5)

    6 people found this helpful

    This book was recommended by Last Podcast On The Left when they were doing a few shows about The Donner Party. This book a wealth of knowledge on their epic/tragic journey. It almost reads like a novel, that's how riveting the story and people are. I really feel that this needs to be turned into a TV docu-series.

    6 people found this helpful

  • (5/5)
    This is THE ONLY book about the Donner Party you should bother reading.
  • (4/5)
    When you think you're having a bad day, read The Indifferent Stars above and learn what it was like to be traveler in the Donner Party in the 1840's.Moving west on foot and covered wagons from Illinois to their intended destination, California, the party became separated with their guide. Lost between mountains and more mountains, snowed in and with little or no provisions their fortitude and willingness to survive beyond the imaginable are disclosed.Interspersed with the events of the journey, the author offers historical information of what life in the mid 19th century entailed. He also includes other instances of people in similar circumstances.An engrossing read, for sure!
  • (4/5)

    The story of the Donner Party is so incredible that you don't need to fancy it up at all, just tell it accurately and honestly and sympathetically. This book does a great job of exactly that. Despite how large this event looms in our collective imagination, I knew almost nothing about what actually happened. Nor did I know much about the experience of westward emigrants beyond what our generation learned from playing Oregon Trail. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about both of these things in a format that was enlightening but also very engaging. It's so well-written that I never found myself getting bogged down in the early parts that cover everyday life on the trail, or even becoming impatient for drama that we know waits on the horizon. The disaster itself is meticulously documented, and laid out in a way that helps make sense of a complicated and messy affair. We even finish with some context that places the Donner Party and its members in the greater historical narrative of the settling of California.

  • (4/5)
    Riveting true story of the Graves, Donner and other families on the arduous trek in 1846/1847 across the Sierra Nevada's to California.Similar style to Erik Larson
  • (5/5)
    I've always been interested in the story of the Donner Party and I thought I knew a little something about it. But I actually knew very little.This story actually (mostly) follows Sarah Graves Fosdick, who left Illinois with her family and her brand new husband to head out West during the time of Manifest Destiny. Not long into the journey, they were convinced that it would be better for them to go to California (instead of Oregon), so they joined with a small-ish group of other families and turned off of the main trail for a shortcut route. It turns out that the info about the shortcut was bad information. This bad info along with several bad decisions and mistakes along the way, caused the Donner Party to lag behind on their schedule. By the time they arrived at what is now called the Donner Pass (near the Nevada/California state line), they were exhausted, hungry, and severely lacking in preparation and supplies. They had no idea that many of them would never make it any further.What this author did was take primary sources (journals and maps etc) and create a well-rounded of what was happening to this group of people, especially the Graves family, at every point along the trail. He also broadened his scope and talked about what else was going on in the country and around the world, and he used a little bit of scientific explanation in a few parts. So I was able to get a pretty wide story about what the intentions of this group were vs. what they actually experienced, and why, and how they recovered in the years after (at least for the ones that survived the journey).It was really jarring to read this attempt at traveling West by wagon when most of the stories I read are not this extreme. I think I've always tended to have a fairly romanticized idea of the pioneers that took their families and wagons and re-settled out west. (I'm obsessed, actually.) For a group of people that-by definition-failed at their goal of arriving safe and sound, they were a group of tough, badass women, men, and children.I won't lie: some parts of the story were hard to read. There were gruesome, bloody parts. And I spent nearly the entire story knowing how things would end up and feeling completely helpless while I watched it all unfold. The first third of the book moves along at a slower pace, but when the group takes the turn to the shortcut trail, things are intense from there. I was astounded at the things these people were willing to do to survive, and I was astounded at how resourceful they were in various parts. I had no idea. No idea.Audiobook Notes: I added the audio to this book because I tend to do better with nonfiction when I'm listening to it. HOWEVER, the audio is not good. It's very boring. The narrator just didn't make anything exciting. I personally kept listening while I did chores (cooking, laundry, etc) so I could finish the book; I got used to the narration. But I would not recommend this as a purchase. If you want to listen to it, try checking it out from the library.Still, even with not-so-great narration, this was a fantastic book.Title: The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James BrownNarrated by: Michael PrichardLength: 10 hours, 55 minutes, UnabridgedPublisher: HarperAudio
  • (5/5)
    Horrifying yet beautiful story of the infamous Donner Party, on the way to California in 1846, this wagon train of 80 souls followed dubious advice from a shady guide and took a cut-off path that was supposed to be a short-cut. Instead it took them into inhospitable mountains and deserts. Arriving at the Sierra Nevadas just as the first snow fell, the party was forced to winter at Truckee Lake. Trapped by massive snowfalls and running out of food, a party strapped on snowshoes and headed out across the mountains to get help. As the people left behind began to die off, the survivors infamously resorted to cannibalism to survive. The group seeking help also were forced to do the same, eventually the survivors, more dead than alive, staggered into civilization in California. Successive rescue parties were sent to help the ones left behind, they found a ghoulish scene of people on the brink of death and butchered skeletons. The dying continued until the last survivors were finally brought to safety. The horror of the story is well-known, but Brown succeeds in bringing beauty to the story by concentrating on one young woman, Sarah Graves Fosdick, who lost her new husband but had strength enough to stagger through as one of those sent to find help. The description of Sarah, her life before, during and after the ordeal humanizes the story, and paints a picture of a strong, determined young woman, that is one of the main reasons this book is so compelling. The most moving part is when Brown embarks on his own journey to follow Sarah from her girlhood home in the east to the place in California where she lived out her days and died, a sensitive and moving tribute to one woman who typified the pioneer spirit. I loved this book, it is horrifying and moving by turns but utterly compelling.
  • (4/5)
    I grew up in the Sacramento area. Because of that, I grew up with this part of California history: how the doomed Donner Party and how the lost survivors were rescued and brought to Sutter's Fort where artifacts and history would be viewed on numerous field trips. Family trips often took us through Donner Pass. Thus, as a kid, I had a fascination with what happened and read more than once History of the Donner Party, a contemporary account history by Charles McClashan who interviewed several survivors.So, although reading The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown (published relatively recently) was definitely a refresher in many ways, I am not really sure I learned anything new with a couple exceptions: he intentionally focuses much more on one person in the Donner Party-- Sarah Graves -- and there is much more grisly detail pertaining to the party's hardships and the the difficulties of westward travel. We definitely have it easy today. A couple random thoughts: I don't know why Brown chose to spell Tamsen Donner's first name "Tamzene" which is the first time I have ever seen it spelled that way. Also, I loved the author's The Boys in the Boat so much that I was perhaps a bit let down by his narrative in this history.
  • (3/5)
    This book alternates between tedious and fascinating. I listened to it as audio book so who took each route became a little confusing without a map to follow along.
  • (5/5)
    Amazing story of what the families in the Donner Party endured. Historical information woven in with fiction and information on the survivors and their lives afterward.
  • (5/5)
    What do you really know about the Donner Party? Did you know they took a detour? The book will tell you why. At one point, on their trip, though already delayed, they were within feet of the correct path but instead headed another direction, down a more easily sloping path. That's when things really became worse. Once the group decided they could travel no further, the area they were in had up to 30' of snow during the remainder of that winter. The configuration and landscape of the area basically trapped the snowfall. Can you even imagine? They were just 100 miles from their destination. Daniel James Brown wrote this account of their misadventure with lots of details. There are many people involved but, for the most part, it is not too difficult to recall who is who. At the end of the book, Brown expounds on the personality aspects that create survivors from disasters. His writing here is rather prosaic and causes one to really ponder life for a moment.
  • (4/5)
    This was a hard read. The level of detail is amazing but it can make the bad choices and resulting Cannibalism heart rending and slightly gory. I didn’t know much about the Donner party and I’m glad I read this. My sympathies go to the Donner Party.
  • (1/5)
    Nothing new here. Although the focus was on the Graves family, 5e story, though tragic, remains the same. Horrific conditions, tragic miscalculations, deadly weather, and loss of life were painstakingly portrayed. The journey was covered but not much in the way of characters. What they endured was the main focus, but that is a story that’s been repeatedly told.
  • (5/5)
    We all think we know the story of the Donner Party. But few of us really do. Over the years it has been sensationalized. Daniel James Brown desensationalizes it in THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE. Brown also adds modern-day knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, to help the reader understand what the Donner Party went through. With understanding comes empathy.The book begins with one family in Illinois. It is interesting but not a page turner in the first few short chapters. Although we read about hard times right away, it isn’t until Part Two, about page 75, that we learn of the deception that led the Donner Party astray and to worse and worse trouble.Then we get to the story that has been sensationalized. Yet, life for the Donner Party needs no sensationalism; it was already more awful than most anyone could manage.Around page 75 I was hooked. Now I needed to read more and more of what I thought I knew but didn’t. It turned out to be worse. But instead of making me sick, it made me hopeful.Probably, Brown should not have tried to concentrate on a single member of the Donner Party. Too little is known of this person. But this is a minor point about such an amazing, well-researched book
  • (5/5)
    The breathtaking historical account of the dangers the American dream and manifest destiny posed in the eighteenth century was in a word: incredible. Risking not only the happiness and future success of their children, but also their lives in the hope of a better world, millions of emigrants crossed the burgoning nation to bountiful new lands. Of the innumerable flock that traversed the Oregon Trail, one group was led astray into the halls of infamy among the other horrific tragedies in human history such as the Titanic or more recently, the Andes flight disaster. This raw retelling of what happened over a 150 years ago in my own backyard was enough to draw me to tears and give me vivid nightmares, but was more than worth it. Though the struggle the Donner Party faced is now difficult for a modern reader to comprehend, Daniel James Brown does a fantastic job relating our world to theirs and painting a beautiful albeit it sorrow-filled picture to examine this preventable disaster like a dectective at the scene of a crime. I must insist you give "The Indifferent Stars Above" a chance as it will not only connect you to America's not so distant past, but also look at yourself through the lense Brown provices and in the face of all adversity realize hope is necessary.
  • (5/5)
    This was excellent narrative nonfiction about the Donner Party by the author of [The Boys in the Boat] (which I also loved). Brown picks a newly married woman, Sarah Graves Fosdick, to focus his story. She traveled with her family and her new husband from Illinois to California as part of the Donner Party. I think everyone knows the basics - group of families on their way to the West gets stuck in a snowstorm and eats each other to survive. Yeah, that part is pretty horrific and more drawn-out than I expected. What I hadn't pieced together was that these were whole families - the old, the young, the single, the married, the infant. It wasn't a bunch of men striking out to get rich or simply to explore. I also did not know any of the details, especially that they had tried a new path that was billed to them as a shortcut to California (rather than taking the established path to Oregon and then making their way down the coast). Why they chose this new route is understandable to me. It was suggested by Hastings himself, the man who wrote the book on California that made them all want to go there. Hastings knew there was really no way to get heavily laden wagons through this route which went through the salt flats in present day Utah and then the Sierra Nevadas. He suggested it, though, because he had an interest in getting California settled by Americans and knew that inevitably some of the group would stop in Oregon if they went through there first. Brown does a great job of capturing the spirit of adventure and hopefulness that drove these people to leave their homes. He also describes the hardships and terrain well. I found this book a page turner and read so fast that I admit to losing track of some of the people he talks about. It was a much bigger group than I realized and it was hard to keep all the families straight. That's why his focus on Sarah was really smart. I also loved that he included his personal experience in researching the book but kept it to the prologue and epilogue. I don't like when authors insert themselves into nonfiction. I have a weakness for survival/explorer nonfiction so this was right up my alley. Overall this was a great book for me and I would highly recommend it.
  • (3/5)
    More like three and a half...not the best writing. This guy was BIG into bad cliffhangers. "Little did they know as they fell asleep that night, that the worst was yet to come..." etc. It was great to learn more about the donner party though - i can't believe how many times and on how many occasions members of the party had to resort to eating people - a total of four! I guess I would too. I also can't believe how long the party stranded at the lake camp survived without resorting to eating people (something like 4 months) with no food. Yet, the 15 or so who left to find help brought up the idea of KILLING and eating people within hours of their last meal.

    Also i literally just noticed that the subtitle is "the harrowing saga of a donner party bride."
  • (3/5)
    Like most people, I am aware of the bare facts of what happened to the Donner party, but not the total story. I picked up Daniel James Brown's "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride" to find out the real story.The book was successful in laying out the difficult times the Donner Party faced as it attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada through a difficult pass at the wrong time of year. The writing was clear and concise and told the story well.What I didn't like about the book was that I didn't feel Brown was particularly successful in his mission to tell the story of one person in particular -- Sarah Graves Fosdick. I also didn't like how he broke the story frequently with asides about today's science and technology. Finally, Brown occasionally reports things as fact but doesn't say how he came to that conclusion until dozens of pages later. (For example, he reports one of the travels was murdered but everyone thought he was killed by Native Americans. How does Brown know that the murder happen? Lots of pages later, he mentions the deathbed confession by one of the assailants. This information should have been grouped together not spread pages and pages apart.Anyway, I feel I got what I wanted out of the book-- a better understanding of the Donner Party circumstances.
  • (4/5)
    Before reading this book, I was only vaguely aware of the Donner Party, which had only been mentioned in passing in one of my high school history books. Of course, most of what I knew (and, likely, most of what the average American knows) about the Donner Party is that they had to resort to cannibalism to survive after being snowed in during a mountain crossing. Of course, there is a lot more to the story than just that aspect, and the author covers it well. The author follows the entire ill-fated Donner Party, but he tries to pay particular attention to Sarah Graves Fosdick, a newlywed traveling with her mother, father, assorted siblings, and new husband. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that there isn't a lot of primary sources about Sarah available. I'm sure that the author found most, if not all, of what is available about her, but the amount of information is relatively small, and he has to rely on saying she "probably felt" or "must have seen" a great deal.There is a lot of information here; the author doesn't just offer a straight narrative of what happened. Instead, he attempts to paint a picture of what life was like at the time, touching on such topics as the Mexican War, gender roles, and how being descendents of those who fought in the American Revolution shaped attitudes and beliefs. As someone who loves history, I really enjoyed the extra information, and I think it painted a more complete picture of the Donner Party.I would have liked more pictures of the places described; I found myself consulting Google quite regularly while reading this book. And the epilogue felt rather unnecessary; I understand that the author felt connected to the Donner Party, especially since his great-uncle was connected to them, but it just felt like he was trying to insert himself into the story at the end. Also, I think the appendix could have been more helpful. It includes who was living where and with whom, which is nice to know, but I would have appreciated a list of who survived and who didn't, as well; there were a lot of people in the Donner Party, with many of them mentioned only in passing. It is hard to keep them straight and to remember who was living at certain points.Altogether, I recommend this book for those interested in this period of history. It definitely demonstrates that our ancestors were some tough birds; I can't imagine living through what they experienced.
  • (5/5)
    A fascinating account of the ordeal the Donner party experienced. If this incident intrigues you read this book.
  • (2/5)
    Now I know why I didn't read much of the donner party. Ugh. Not sure there's a pleasant part of that story. I'm more interested in the history of the frontier, not specifically the order in which people met their grisly ends.This book purports to focus on a single character to trace through history -- which is a tenuous theme at best. The first 75% discuss over 50 characters, so it is hard to keep them straight, and only at the close of the story does the author wax philosophical (and a bit indulgent) in first-person stories of how he relates to the "central" protagonist both as he tries to put himself in her shoes, and as he imagines himself to be her father, since he has a daughter in real life who is the same age as this protagonist (at least, at some point they are the same age, which is rather silly since the story is about her life over a period of decades).Anyways. I'm not sure there is a better Donner Party narrative out there. The ones in the library seemed to be written in that late 19th century style, which is uncomfortable for an armchair historian like me. I found myself wishing that I was re-reading Undaunted Courage or similar, rather than this harrowing tale of misery and catastrophe.
  • (3/5)
    I tried to read this and parts were very interesting, but other parts read too much like a school history book. I found myself skipping ahead to find more of Sarah's story and less of the history lesson surrounding it. I skipped ahead a good bit in parts of the book.
  • (4/5)
    I was only peripherally aware of the Donner party saga, and this book gave me a detailed, step-by-step account. I feel well-versed now. However, that being said, I didn't expect that type of experience. I thought it would be more story-like; this leaned more towards text book writing. (No major complaints about that, though.) For the most part, I thought it was very good, and I learned a great deal - it just felt a little distant, probably because Brown didn't just focus on a few characters. There were numerous groups. However, it was by no means emotion-free; it's a devastating story.It was very obvious that Brown's research was extensive, and the added side notes of information were of great interest to me. In the finished copy, I believe there are photos, which I'm eager to seek out. However, it's my understanding that there is not a map, and I feel like that is an important, missed feature. I would have loved to have seen the trail they were supposed to have taken and the one that lead to the demise of many.In the end, The Indifferent Stars Above, is a fine piece of work. It's informative and sincere. I'm glad I read it and recommend it to those interested in the Donner saga.Originally posted on: Thoughts of Joy
  • (5/5)
    History that reads like a novel. The story of the Donner Party is one that everyone seems to have heard but that few really know anything about. Today the only thing anyone really is aware of is the horrifying lengths members of the group went to in order to survive. What people don't realize is that the majority of the Donner Party were women and children; that they were completely exhausted and without provisions well before they became snowbound; and that there were numerous attempts to escape the snowbound mountains as well as rescue parties sent from California. I found this book to be absolutely riviting. Yes, it was sometimes difficult to read about this ordeal. On the other hand, it was inspiring to know read about their determination to live and to know that many did survive. Absolutely one of the best books I've read and very highly recommended.
  • (3/5)
    The Indifferent Stars Above is a well-researched and fresh telling of the famously disastrous Donner Party. With coverage of the full journey from Midwest through to California, the travelers' mistakes are slow building, but apparent. If you can look past the periodic present-day asides--perhaps of interest to the author alone--the story is fully compelling and presented with emotion, but not sensationalism. The book remains surprisingly suspenseful throughout and a solidly engaging read.
  • (1/5)
    I had hoped this book would have a more driving narrative to it. Unfortunately, it moves so slowly that I felt like I was walking beside a covered wagon for miles while reading it. The author attempts to bring a different point of view to the story by focusing on two women (girls) who were a part of the group, but he fails at this, sometimes making the book seem too much like some warped version of his own autobiography, and at other times losing the main characters for large portions of the narrative. To be fair, I will confess that after several tries I was not able to finish the book, so it may have a redeeming ending, but I couldn't slog through the muddy story-telling to get there.