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A well-researched and vivid retelling of the Donner Party's 1846 winter ordeal and the struggle for control of the California territory.

This time, there's a dual narrative, shared by elderly Patricia Reed's "Travel Notes" recalling her family's experiences and an omniscient story focussed primarily on her father James Frazier Reed, who had been "banished' from the Donner Party (and thus separated from his family) after he had killed a neighbor in self-defense during a fight. This split focus is occasionally distracting, but it does create considerable suspense, as the bulk of the tale recounts Reed's solitary "passage" through the Sierra Nevadas to the West Coast, where he falls in with such hardy souls as California "liberator" John C. Fremont, Commander John Augustus Sutter (a "self-appointed ambassador at the farthest edge of the civilized world"), and Abner Valentine, an amoral opportunist whose ragtag "militia" uses the occasion of the (recently begun) Mexican War for plunder and profit. Houston (Continental Drift, not reviewed, etc.) subtly links the acquisitive energies of these and other adventurers to the pride that had set Reed apart from, and in opposition to, his westering companions (his family of six had traveled in a lavishly furnished "Palace Car" that exhausted the oxen pulling it), which his daughter—years after he had returned as one of their rescuers—understands and forgives ("It was his own desire and refusal to be thwarted that had put us on the trail . . . and also brought him back into the mountains to carry on the journey"). And when the details of how the starving, exhausted travelers (who were stranded in the Sierras through an unusually cruel winter) are revealed in a long, harrowing climax, the novel gathers real tragic force. This is one of the essential stories of the American westward movement, and seldom has it been told with such exemplary passion and pathos.

Is there yet any doubt that the historical novel is alive and well once again? Houston has made another significant contribution to the genre's revival.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-41103-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001


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