“Desperate Passage” is an exciting yet at the same time disheartening book written by the acclaimed author Ethan Rarick. The author has a vast wealth of experience in writing, having authored books and articles on politics, crime, business and other spheres of life. The book was originally published in 2008 by the Oxford University Press. With three hundred and four pages, it is a fast-paced historical, non-fiction that retells a story of the donners, reeds and other parties in their torturous journey to the west.
The book is a fascinating read that explores the themes of survival and endurance in a very profound way. It is set against the background of the nineteenth century America in which the donners, and other parties make up their minds to travel westwards from Missouri to California in search of the epitomized greener pastures back in the year 1846.
It offers a gruesome yet sadly true tale of survival during these epic journeys by the various parties. The traveling parties against wise counsel decide to use untested and rough terrain that ultimately leads to delays and occasions a very slow pace. Coupled with poor timing, they are caught up in the winter in an unfriendly territory. The result of this is starvation, death, mere survival and eventually, help and rescue to the lucky few who survived. The most important aspect of the book is that it has a factual basis, thus painting the accurate picture of what happened in 1846 as opposed to the many fictional stories about the donners and other parties that have become the norm.
Rarick explains that the journey in Missouri begun to a very slow start due to (among other reasons) the use of oxen to pull the carts. As backward as this would appear, Rarick explains that there was no rail transport or advanced roads by then. The available roads would have taken the parties four months to travel and yet Hastings had an even shorter route and lesser traveling distance.
The oxen pulling the carts begun being weighed down as the journey progressed through the mountainous terrain further slowing down the parties. Eventually, they come across a folk road and at pains to even take time and think; they choose one of the roads that lead to their ultimate agony. The road leads to the Great Salt Desert. It was despite the numerous warnings they received:
Clyman trying to warn Reed about the desolation he had just seen in the Great Salt Lake Desert. Remembering the conversation years later, Clyman said he told Reed to ‘take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely possible to get through if you follow it, and it may be impossible if you don't.’ (Rarick, 2008, p.49)
The ultimate doom happens as winter begins to fall while they are still on the journey in the unfriendly terrain but against their better judgment, they choose to soldier on for as Rarick puts it: "On a journey into the unknown, perfect progress is perfectly impossible" (Rarick, 2008, p.49). The winter takes a toll on them as they are forced to leave some of their food behind to ease the oxen's luggage, which at the same time meant they had less and less provisions to help themselves. They are forced to set up camp in the middle of uninhabitable terrain, hunger, starvation and death begin to take their toll on them.
They died in their dozens more so the men as compared to the women. Rarick writes that even other attempts to move on were further slowed down by the need to bury the dead showing just how awful it had gotten. The lack of food brought the worst in the travelers - cannibalism. They were forced to eat not only the dead but at one time were compelled to kill some natives. It goes on until the surviving ones are rescued.
What I like about the book is the abundance of human stories in it despite the overwhelming calamities that the traveling parties were facing. We are told of one of the women, Donner, who agrees to let her children continue the journey with strangers as she is left behind to be with her dying husband. "Tamzene Donner was a woman at peace with the vagaries of life: "I am as happy as I can reasonably expect in this changing world" (Rarick, 2008, p.17). Such moving stories can only be expected in the soap operas rather than in real life situations.
The other human story in the book is that of the rescue parties who, regardless of the obvious dangers of the journey, take up the task of searching for the survivors. In a world where self-preservation, greed and self-serving is rife, their actions were quite commendable. Indeed, some of the rescuers paid the ultimate price as is the case with the two natives who were killed and feasted on by the traveling party despite their continued assistance to the doomed group especially food.
Despite the book being framed as a novel for mere entertainment in its reading, it also offers explanations and lessons that make one feel as if they are in a class. Rarick tactfully manages to explain the reasoning and possible theories behind some of the events. One of such instances is his explanation as to why many more women than men survive the tragedy. He gives scientific insights into this account despite his book being a historical one. Furthermore, the book does not tap into the emotive fears that the story of the Donner and other parties has for a long time been told which often borders on superstition rather than the reality. Rarick made great attempts to be as factual as possible, thus he avoided the mistakes many authors of the same story might have made.
With its central theme of survival and endurance, the author provides some sought of a successful conclusion when the survivors are rescued. Rarick (2008) says:
Of the eighty-one people, who had been trapped by the early autumn snow at the eastern edge of the Sierra, thirty-six had died, and forty-five had survived. No one remained at the high camps. For the Donner Party, the journey was finished. (p.227)
The fact that there were survivors more so the women and children serves to show the strength of the human spirit, a spirit that Rarick tries to capture whether by design or default. It is a testament that it is possible to go against all odds and reach the stretched out mile. For that, the book not only serves its purpose as a record of history but also as a motivation to the readers.
The buildup of the story is also fascinating, to many readers. It is evident from the countless frightening stories we have heard of the Donner parties that the journey would face a multitude of challenges. However, Rarick manages to explain tactfully the buildup and the series of mistakes that ultimately led to the tragedy. His explanation is rivaled by no other story about the same event.
However, the book offers gruesome and vivid accounts of the events in the fateful four months. While this is commendable as it is factual, some of the details are too gory that they border on being in a scene of a horror or fictional book rather than in a historical book. An instance is when Rarick tells of the two kids busy tearing away the flesh of a dead man, one with the liver and the other with the heart. He further continues to write that their faces are covered with blood as they raise their heads up. Such illustrations while true tend to move the readers mind away from the intended historical perspective of the story.
Rarick could also have tried to explore the possibility, however minute, of writing about the parties that made it to California; indeed, it is evident from the book that there are those who made it there albeit having used the much longer routes that were much safer. Such would have provided an interesting contrast between the two situations, which I believe would have enabled the reader, truly appreciate the mountainous task Donner, reeds and the other parties were undertaking.
Desperate Passage is a book that any serious reader would find hard to stop reading once they begin. As much as it is dotted with sad and teary events it offers an exciting opportunity for the reader to travel back in time and feel like part of the Donner, Reeds, and the other parties. It is such kind of a literal journey that enables the book to serve its purpose as a record of history as the journey remains glued to the mind of the reader in a long time. However, the book is not for the faint at heart as it is full of bloody, brutal and savage accounts that might be as nauseating as they can be horrifying. Overall, for the courageous readers out there, “Desperate Passage” is a must read. It offers insight into the lives of the people who made their journey from Missouri to California searching for what they thought would be greener pasture. The setting of the story in the nineteenth century, a time when many people moved to California. However, the journey was torturous as seen from the story. The few that made it had to endure a lot because the journey was tough. Overall, it is a good book that is recommended for history students.
Rarick, E. (2008). Desperate Passage. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.