THE DONNER PARTY by George Keithley


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Fortunately a long extract in Harper's magazine has prepared the way for this bizarre tour de force, a book length poem about the Donner party's trek from Illinois to the snow-jammed Utah pass where they dined so infamously. Keithley's version succeeds in humanizing this ghoulishness and giving it a relevance that approaches the tragic. The fatal error, trusting in guidebooks that should not have been trusted, is as homely in its way as the taciturn voice of George Donner, who delivers this account. His preoccupations are with the land, tools, and the community; these are the measures of the group's dissolution -- the increasing hostility of the terrain, the slow dilapidation of the wagons and reluctant discardings that define the essential, and especially the transmutation of their earnest, naively legalistic civic notions into a rock-bottom recognition of necessity. Weighty themes are implicit only; Donner's perspective is never violated, either in the insinuation of leit-motifs (e.g., their ominously giddy sense of ""causing talk"" among less adventurous townsfolk when they set out) or in the final confrontation between the dying cannibals and civilization in the person of a belated rescuer. Donner's embarrassment at this point is utterly and eloquently appropriate. The prosaic, hymn-like three- and four-line stanzas prove sufficient, though it takes a great many to make a book: for the most part Keithley avoids tedium as successfully as he does sensationalism, and the poem stands as an effective whole. It reclaims the awful episode in such a way that it can be recognized as thoroughly American, not merely acceptable but enhancing to our sense of our past.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1971
Publisher: Braziller