Desperate Passage, by Ethan Rarick
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 3/26/08
The Donner Party. When I first learned about them I recall my history teacher telling me about a comic strip involving two pieces of bread with a leg sticking out of it. Yet we all remember learning about this in history class, about how these families became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for months, having to live off the flesh from those who died. It is the ultimate survival tale, and also one that could have been avoided had certain egos not gotten in the way.
Ethan Rarick discusses this journey, how the Donners, Reeds, and other parties ended up in this situation, what they did to survive, and how ultimately the fortunate were rescued. This book is a fascinating read because it reads like a novel, and for those who are drawn to American history (Manifest Destiny is one of my favorite periods) coupled with one of the most grisly survival tales in history, then this is the absolute book for you.
The book begins with a brief history of the families and why many of them were eager to head west. Like most, they were in search of a better life that would bring them better times. Starting off from Independence Missouri, Rarick details not only how boring this journey must have been, but how unbearably slow. He estimates that the families with all their buggies and oxen and whathaveyou probably moved at most one to two miles an hour. It has been said that individuals could have literally walked faster than those oxen pulled.
So how did this ordeal happen? Basically, the parties relied on false information from a con-artist named Hastings, promising a “short cut” which of course did not exist since what they faced was not reasonable traveling roads, but mountainous terrain. Try getting an ox to pull a buggy up that. While reading this, it is easy for one to become aggravated by how often they avoided the signs and warnings that pointed to Hasting’s “short cut” as a bad idea. Yet, despite the trip itself being very, very slow, the saddest part was the fact that these were families overrun with children, many of them infants and toddlers—certainly not the type of party meant to “experiment” through terrain one has never crossed or knows nothing about.
So once reaching their impassable destination (the mountain ranges and cliffs that make it physically impossible to go on) they remain in their cold place, erecting mediocre lodges that do a lousy job of keeping out the biting winter winds. And as readers, we know it is only a matter of time before the families run out of food.
Another point Rarick addresses involves other historical anecdotes resulting in cannibalism, how starvation affects the body, and also the many rumors that circulated after the families were found--how many tried to demonize the people for having resorted to such extreme measures. Reading this book, however, one can only come away asking what he or she would have done in the same situation when there is literally nothing to eat.
Many of the men died and many of the women survived. Yet for months, individuals were forced to live off nothing but human flesh—he describes their emaciated frames, the squalor they must have endured as they struggled for weeks to stay warm, the horrid stench, the loneliness, and why it just took so damn long to begin with. When rescuers came, many were too sick or weak to walk out, and being that this was a time before airplanes and before any major railroad, many of the rescuers were in fact risking their own lives as well.
There were actually several rescue parties—not all happened at once as it was in the book Alive by Piers Paul Read, which told the story of a plane that crashed in the Andes mountains back in the early 1970s. Desperate Passage is actually filled with far more devastating depictions, since many involve children. One of the most horrific things Rarick describes is two very young children feasting together—one on a dead man’s liver and the other his heart, looking up as one witness described, with blood on their faces. As bad as the Andes crash must have been, the Donners had it worse because many were trapped for over four months, while the Andes survivors had to suffer 72 days.
We learn in these times of extreme peril, that duration does matter, that every extreme morsel and movement can lead to devastating outcomes. Of course, that is no way to live, and yet it is everything that is needed to live when forced with such extreme measures.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of the survivors were women, and Rarick discusses his theories as to why that is (being that women tend to have more body fat on average than men, they tend to be physically smaller than men and so require less food for energy). Rarick argues that the woman’s body is better suited to starvation than a man’s body. He also notes how one of the young boys who got rescued in fact died from overeating—for when the body goes without food for so long, it is unable to handle large amounts and can in fact lead to death.
There are also a handful of photographs, both of the geography and several of the childhood survivors who fortunately lived well into adulthood. Desperate Passage reads like a novel, one that is difficult to accept and also difficult to put down. I don’t recommend it for the weak stomach, but one of the advantages this book has over other survival tales is that much history is discussed--which makes this historical non-fiction book an interesting (yet I don’t know if one can really say “pleasurable”) read. Yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
Return to Bylines