Cover image for The perilous journey of the Donner Party
The perilous journey of the Donner Party
Calabro, Marian.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Clarion Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
192 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm
Uses materials from letters and diaries written by survivors of the Donner Party to relate the experiences of that ill-fated group as they endured horrific circumstances on their way to California in 1846-47.
Reading Level:
1020 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 7.2 6.0 31234.

Reading Counts RC 6-8 8.7 9 Quiz: 14313 Guided reading level: NR.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F868.N5 C33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F868.N5 C33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F868.N5 C33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F868.N5 C33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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On April 14, 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois, in search of a better life in the largely unsettled California territory. The trip started well but eventually questionable choices and infighting delayed pioneers' attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada until winter. As the impassable snows closed in and their supplies dwindled to nothing, the group faced an almost hopeless struggle for survival that would push some toward the final taboo of cannibalism. Nearly half the members of the Donner Party were children. This account, filled with selections from the survivors' letters and diaries, focuses on the children's experiences, making it uniquely compelling and accessible to young readers. Index, bibliography, chronology, group rosters, suggestions for further research.

Author Notes

Marian Calabro is a published author with a special interest in biography and history. She lives in New Jersey.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 5^-8. The story of the Donner Party, the ill-fated wagon train that faced horrific circumstances on its way to California, is the subject of books, videos, and, now, Web sites. Calabro's offering is a fine addition to the Donner Party canon and particularly well suited to its young audience, for whom the story of hardship and survival will be nothing short of riveting. Calabro wisely chooses to tell her story primarily through the eyes of one of the young emigrants, 12-year-old Virginia Reed. Using a letter Reed wrote to her cousin (reprinted in its entirety at the book's conclusion) as well as other original documentation, Calabro painstakingly traces the Donner Party's journey, from its optimistic beginning in Springfield, Illinois, to its destination in California--after the group had endured death, starvation, and even cannabilism of the fallen. Though never resorting to sensationalism, the book does not skimp on any of the details as the Donner Party finds itself trapped in the Sierra Nevada, with both supplies and hope in short supply. Calabro's research is meticulous. The book comes alive with details about clothing, household items, and, always, the food, even the tiniest morsels. She moves the story into the present with her interviews of survivors' descendants. There is an extensive bibliography as well as a list for further reading, a chronology, and a roster of the dead. Numerous photographs and reproductions of art and artifacts are included. Sometimes a heavily researched book can be dry, but not this one. From the haunting cover with its lonely campfire to the recounting of a survivors' reunion, this is a page-turner. --Ilene Cooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Calabro's (Operation Grizzly Bear) gripping account of the Donner party's infamous 1846 trek from Illinois to the largely unsettled territory of California chronicles the unfortunate choices, travel conditions and personality conflicts that conspired against the pioneers to leave them stranded in the mountains for the winter. Of the 90 emigrants, teenagers and children comprised almost half of the party and proved the majority of survivors. Calabro incorporates memoirs, diaries and letters to capture the sense of adventure and joy at the start of their journey and to provide insight into the acts of rancor, heroism, cruelty and kindness that surfaced throughout the expedition, mountain imprisonment and rescue. The author conveys much of the experience through the eyes of survivor Virginia Reed, who was 13 when the party headed west; young readers will be particularly moved by her powerful letter at the end of the ordeal, printed here in its entirety. Calabro responsibly tackles the cannibalism that made these settlers an object of horror in their own time and the subject of grisly jokes in our own. By placing the desperate act in context, the author shows the dire circumstances that forced survivors to resort to, in her words, "the last taboo." She includes an insightful epilogue on the survivors, and devotes a chapter to the party's enduring legacy and the ancestors, landmarks and monuments that stand as testimony to both their sacrifice and survival. Maps, pictures, drawings and etchings from museums as well as the author's own collection support the skillful exposition of this horrifying and tragic episode in the history of the West. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 6 Up-In the spring of 1846, George and Jacob Donner, James Reed, and their families left Illinois bound for the California territory. A series of accidents and bad decisions slowed their progress along the trail west. By the beginning of November, the group was snowed in at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ultimately, half of the party died, and in desperation, many of the remaining travelers were forced to eat the dead in order to survive. This well-written account of this ill-fated expedition draws heavily on the observations of 12-year-old Virginia Reed and pays particular attention to the plight of the children who were part of the band. By placing the cannibalism carefully in the context of the almost unending string of difficulties faced and mistakes made by the members of the party, Calabro is able to discuss the subject without sensationalizing it. A final chapter describes the later lives of some of the survivors. There is a lengthy bibliography, a list of Web sites, and a transcript of the letter that Virginia wrote to her cousin after she reached safety, chronicling the journey. Black-and-white photographs and reproductions appear throughout. This book is more detailed than David Lavender's Snowbound: The Tragic Story of the Donner Party (Holiday, 1996), which is for younger readers. Generations of Americans have been fascinated with this story, and young readers will no doubt find Calabro's title fascinating as well.-Elaine Fort Weischedel, Turner Free Library, Randolph, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.