“Snow Mountain Passage” by James D. Houston (Knopf, 2001)

Donner Lake is a Misnomer

Snow Mountain Passagestarstarstarstar

Anyone who took high school American history is familiar with the Donner party and the great tragedy that befell them when they attempted the monumental crossing from Illinois to California; they got snowed-in in the Sierra Nevadas and had to resort to cannibalism to survive starvation.

Everyone is familiar with the grisly details of this doomed journey.  In James D. Houston’s Snow Mountain Passage, new insights are brought to life, and the reader is taken on a journey quite different from the one they learned about in American history 101.

“I gaze down from the summit at the icy ring of Truckee Lake, the one they now call Donner,” recounts Patty Reed, one of the survivors, in her diary some 75 years after that cruel winter, “an it’s odd to think that neither George nor Jacob ever got anywhere near the lake that is named for them . . . It tells you something about the way things get remembered.”

Our main family is not the Donners but the Reeds, our narrator is Jim Reed (and Patty Reed through her diary), who is forced to leave the party after an erratic act of promoted violence that leaves one of the 80-member party dead.  Ahead he goes and makes it to the wonderful land of California, which is currently – in 1846 – in turmoil.  There are the Californians, who are the natives, the Mexicans, who still hold rights to the country, and then there are the Americans trying to take California from the Mexicans.

Jim Reed is thrown headfirst into this tumultuous struggle, while at the same time his very soul aches to take out a rescue party and help those in need, stranded in the icy mountains.

Meanwhile, the reader is given an alternate view, through Patty Reed’s diary, of how helpless the party is in in the mountains, with little food left to keep them alive.  They now have to resort to boiling animal skins and scraping the resulting gray gelatin and using it as sustenance.

Hunger is the poignant metaphor in this book that is never forgotten: hunger for those who have nothing to eat; hunger for those who wish to rescue them; hunger for those who wish for land in California, and intend to fight for it; hunger for those who wish for independence, be they American, California, or Mexican; and hunger for those who wish to make it to the soft warm hinterlands and finally settle down.

At some points Houston takes the read on too deep a journey into the fight for freedom taking place between the different peoples of California; nevertheless it serves as an interesting history lesson, letting the reader know such ditties as why San Francisco and Truckee received the names they did.  (One was named after an Indian chief, and the other was named after the large bay, which was in turn named after Saint Francis of Assisi.)

The book serves as an interesting and most illustrative dark chapter in California’s history, not dwelling on the gory details, but still revealing them in a factual sense that abhors the reader – from the story but not from the book.  Snow Mountain Passage stands as a useful history book on any shelf, even though it is a work of fiction.

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Originally published on October 8th 2001

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.