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SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE.

Houston, James D.

ISBN 10: 0375411038 / ISBN 13: 9780375411038
Published by New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. dj, 2001
Hardcover
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About this Item

SIGNED hardcover first edition - First printing. SIGNED on the title page. A novel of pioneer courage and survival in the face of trouble. Follows the Donner Party, with its cast of young and old adventurers, through its ordeals, with special focus on leader James Frazier Reeds's eight-year old daughter, Patty (Houston now lives in Patty Reed's former house, which gives this book an interesting perspective) . Map endpapers. 317 pp. Dust jacket praise from William Kittredge and Kevin Starr, who praise both the storytelling and the historical accuracy. Very near fine in a like dustjacket. Bookseller Inventory # 35468

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Bibliographic Details

Title: SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE.

Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. dj

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Hardcover

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title

Synopsis:

Snow Mountain Passage is a powerful retelling of the most dramatic of our pioneer stories—the ordeal of the Donner Party, with its cast of young and old risking all, its imprisoning snows, its rumors of cannibalism. James Houston takes us inside this central American myth in a compelling new way that only a novelist can achieve.

The people whose dreams, courage, terror, ingenuity, and fate we share are James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner Party, and his wife and four children—in particular his eight-year-old daughter, Patty. From the moment we meet Reed—proud, headstrong, yet a devoted husband and father—traveling with his family in the "Palace Car," a huge, specially built covered wagon transporting the Reeds in grand style, the stage is set for trouble. And as they journey across the country, thrilling to new sights and new friends, coping with outbursts of conflict and constant danger, trouble comes. It comes in the fateful choice of a wrong route, which causes the group to arrive at the foot of the Sierra Nevada too late to cross into the promised land before the snows block the way. It comes in the sudden fight between Reed and a drover—a fight that exiles Reed from the others, sending him solo over the mountains ahead of the storms.

We follow Reed during the next five months as he travels around northern California, trying desperately to find means and men to rescue his family. And through the amazingly imagined "Trail Notes" of Patty Reed, who recollects late in life her experiences as a child, we also follow the main group, progressively stranded and starving on the Nevada side of the Sierras.

Snow Mountain Passage is an extraordinary tale of pride and redemption. What happens—who dies, who survives, and why—is brilliantly, grippingly told.

Review:

Snow Mountain Passage is a novel about the Donner Party. Still reading? Never fear, this is no corpse fest along the lines of Piers Paul Read's Alive, and its concerns are anything but prurient. For James Houston, who has written movingly about California in the past, the Donner Party's experiences exemplify the ambition, the courage, and the sheer hubris of those who ventured into territory as unfamiliar to them as the moon. His book is not just a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong and who ate whom, it's a searing portrait of both the promises and the perils of the American dream.

Houston follows the events of 1847 through the eyes of James Reed and his daughter Patty. Exiled from the party after he accidentally killed one of its members, Reed made it over the Sierras before snow locked what is now called Donner Pass. His family, however, did not. Along with more than 80 other stranded emigrants, they erected crude cabins below the summit and settled in for a long winter of hunger, cold, madness, and cannibalism, chronicled by Patty Reed in prose of uncommon urgency and even beauty. Here, for instance, she watches as her mother walks away with the first rescue party, leaving her by the shores of Truckee Lake:

My body was like an empty bottle sitting on a dark shelf in an empty cupboard. A cold sun was shining. While we stood there the wind came up, rushing through the pines with a sound like surf, a gushing roar like water on the rise, as if an ocean of ice water had begun to pour across the world.
In contrast, the book lags while James Reed crisscrosses California, attempting to scare up a rescue party for his family. And the author spends far too much time describing the landscape. This reader found at least half her attention back at Truckee Lake with the starving emigrants, wondering guiltily, "Have they eaten anyone yet?" Still, the book generally moves along at a terrific clip, its characters sketched with swift, sure strokes, and their disastrous decisions depicted without excuses or blame. "You couldn't have stopped him," Patty thinks about her father, who persuaded his traveling companions to take the fatal route. "Or stopped any of it." The Donner Party's fate, Houston implies, was as inevitable as America's great westward expansion. But like that epic movement, Snow Mountain Passage highlights both the best and the worst in human nature. --Mary Park

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