Cover image for Snow Mountain passage
Snow Mountain passage
Houston, James D.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2001.
Physical Description:
xi, 317 pages : maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
Maps on lining papers.
Format :


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

Author Notes

James D. Houston is the author of "Continental Drift" & six other novels, & of several nonfiction works, including "Farewell to Manzanar", coauthored with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.

(Publisher Provided) James D. Houston was born in San Francisco, California on November 10, 1933. He received a bachelor's degree in drama from San Jose State College and a master's degree in American literature at Stanford University. During his lifetime, he wrote nine novels as well as nonfiction books and essays. His works include Bird of Another Heaven, Snow Mountain Passage, and Farewell to Manzanar. His second novel, Gig, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Fiction. He taught writing part-time at numerous universities including the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Hawaii, the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, George Mason University, and San Jose State University. He died due to complications of cancer on April 16, 2009 at the age of 75.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Houston reconstructs the story of the Donner party--a wagon train of families headed west to fulfill the U.S. manifest destiny that ended in tragedy and, yes, cannibalism --through the story of one family, the Reeds. Motivated by a need for adventure and by the promise of wealth and health, Jim Reed convinces his family to leave their successful lives in the East. But when he kills a man in self-defense, Jim must leave his family and cross the Sierra Nevada with a dying horse and little food. But the struggles of his family behind him will be even worse. The narrative voice switches between a third-person account of Jim's story and the recollections of his daughter, Patty, 75 years after the crossing. This ends some of the suspense (clearly, Patty survives the crossing), and Patty's voice is written with an off-putting sentimentality. But Houston's lush descriptions and careful re-creation of the early West make this novel a moving testament to the strength and tragic flaws--of Jim Reed, and, in turn, the American character. --John Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

The myth of California has been a preoccupation of Houston's in both his fiction (Continental Drift) and nonfiction (Californians). Here he reimagines the saga of perhaps the most infamous of California dreamers: the ill-fated Donner Party. The story is told primarily from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the party, who sets out in a luxurious, fully equipped wagon he calls the Palace Car, with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Somewhere in Nevada, jealousy and trumped-up murder charges oblige him to ride ahead alone, leaving his family behind with the party. When the wagon train is stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevada, Reed must try on his own to assemble a rescue team. His efforts bring him into contact with petty despots (John Sutter, for example), thieves and opportunists, as well as people of uncommon nobility and dignity. In making Reed central to the story, Houston is true to history (the Donner brothers were marginal players in the drama) as he presents a compelling portrait of a man who was a mixture of renegade and hero, his unrealistic dreams of grandeur imperiling his family. Alternating with Reed's tale are trail notes written from memory 75 years later by his daughter Patty, depicting the despair and madness besetting starving members of the snowed-in families. A dispassionate observer at age eight, Patty learns to trust and reveal her compassion, and sitting by the bay in Santa Cruz as an old woman, she brings a redemptive note to an undertaking usually viewed with reflexive loathing. Haunting and immediate, Houston's novel reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability and moral ambiguity. (Apr.) Forecast: This could be a breakout book for Houston, who has a solid but mostly local reputation. His previous efforts have fared well critically, but a 40,000 first printing signals Knopf's commitment to leading his latest into the promised land of higher sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Houston (Continental Drift) reimagines the fate of the Donner party, telling the tale from the perspective of one proud man, separated from the rest, who beats the snows over the mountains but then turns back to rescue his family. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Houston evokes a keen and majestic sense of the land and conveys an insightful portrait of selected members of the Donner Party as he recounts their ill-fated journey from Springfield, IL, to California during the winter of 1846-1847. The author uses the device of viewing events from two alternating perspectives. The opening chapters present a third-person account focusing on James Frazier Reed, who, as one of the leaders of the expedition, traveled with his wife and four children. These chapters resonate with the passionate pioneer vision of those whose dreams inspired the crossing, and who subsequently dealt with the privations, personal discords, and catastrophic weather that befell the wagon train. The sense of urgency for rescue is paramount; readers witness acts of selflessness and heroism even as some in the party succumb to cannibalism when desperation presses them beyond the limits of endurance. In the complementary chapters, the author crafts a perspective in the first-person voice of Reed's daughter, Patty, whose "Trail Notes" are penned some 75 years later. These passages yield the retrospective reflections of an octogenarian gazing back upon the journey she made as an eight-year-old. Her memories are stark and piercing, but time and distance conspire to lend a gentling to her voice and a compassionate reluctance to pass judgment upon her fellow wayfarers. This well-told and riveting historical novel is based upon a heavily documented episode in American history that has generated considerable conjecture and analysis and is rich in material for student discussion.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Somewhere in Nebraska June 1846 They have been following the sandy borders of the Platte through level country that changes little from day to day, an undulating sea of grasses broken here and there by clumps of trees along the river. Jim Reed likes it best in late afternoon, the low sun giving texture to the land, giving each hump and ripple its shadow and its shape, while the river turns to gold, a broad molten corridor. He likes being alone at this time of day, with the mare under him. He wears a wide-brim hat, a loose shirt of brown muslin, a kerchief knotted around his neck. His trousers are stuffed into high leather boots, and his rifle lies across the saddle. He has been scouting ahead, in search of game, and now, as he takes his time returning, his reverie is interrupted by the sight of another rider heading toward the wagons. As the man and horse draw nearer, Reed recognizes him and calls out. "Mr. Keseberg!" The German is not going to stop, so Jim overtakes him. "Keseberg, hold on! What are you carrying there?" "Something for my wife, to help her sleep a little easier." Jim rides in closer. Two shaggy hides are heaped across the pommel. "Looks like buffalo." "Indeed it is." Jim has not seen a buffalo for several days. Keseberg isn't much of a shot, in any event, nor could he have skinned a creature for its hide, even had he somehow brought one down. "May I ask where it comes from?" "This was a gift." "A gift?" "From a dead Indian. The best Indian is a dead Indian. Isn't that what you Americans say?" Keseberg seems to think this is funny. His mouth spreads in a boastful grin. "Some say that. I do not." "But surely you will agree that these are fine specimens." Keseberg is a handsome fellow, with penetrating blue eyes and a full head of blond hair that hangs to his collar. Knowing that he crossed the ocean less than two years ago, Jim is willing to make allowances. He wants to get along with this man, though he does not like him much. They will all need one another sooner or later. "Have you had much experience with Indians, Keseberg?" "As little as possible." "If these robes come from a funeral scaffold, you'd better put them back." His smile turns insolent. "So you can ride out later and take them for yourself?" "When I want a buffalo robe I will trade for it, not steal it." "And in the meantime you would leave these out here to rot in the sun and in the rain." This remark seems to please Keseberg. His face is set, as if all his honor is at stake and he has just made a telling point. Clearly he has no idea what he has done, nor does he care. Jim looks off toward the circle of wagons, which are drawn up for the night about a quarter mile away. He does not see himself as a superstitious man. He sees himself as a practical man. Stealing robes from a funeral scaffold is simply foolish for anyone to try, given all they've heard about the Sioux. It nettles him; it riles him. He does not like being snared in another man's foolishness. Near the wagons he sees animals grazing, children running loose, burning off the day's stored restlessness. Women hunker at the cooking fires. His wife will soon be laying out a tablecloth wherever she can find a patch of grass. "We're going to stay civilized," she will say to someone, once or twice a day, "no matter how far into the wilderness we may wander." Such a poignant scene it is, and all endangered now by the thoughtless greed of this fellow who pulled up to the rear of the party on just such an evening and asked if he could travel with them. George Donner had met the man briefly in St. Louis before they crossed the Mississippi. At the time Jim had no reason to protest. Keseberg is young and fit, somewhere in his early thirties, and he is not a drifter or a desperado as some of the younger, single riders have turned out to be. He looks prosperous enough. He has two full wagons, one driven by a hired man. He has six yoke of oxen, two children, a pretty wife. She can barely speak English, but Keseberg speaks quite well for one so recently arrived. He is something of a scholar, too, knows four languages in all, or so he claims. The other German travelers have welcomed him, and so has Donner, whose parents come from Germany. Jim has never had any trouble with Germans. But he sees now that he is going to have trouble being civil to Keseberg. Rumors have been circulating that he beats his wife. This is why she wears so many scarves and bonnets, Margaret whispers, even on the warmest days. Jim shrugged this off at first. Now he wonders. Into Keseberg's eyes has come a look that seems to say he is capable of such things. Defiant. Selfish. "Mr. Keseberg, these robes are not yours to keep." "Nonsense," he says. Jim's color rises. "They have to be returned!" With sudden gaiety that could be a form of mockery, Keseberg says, "My God, man! The sun is going down! The day is done! My dinner will be waiting!" He gallops away toward the wagons, sitting tall, as if he is a show rider in a circus troupe. By the time Jim catches up to him, Keseberg has dismounted and is holding high one of the long robes for his wife to see, speaking endearments in German as he presents her with this gift, for his sweet one, the companion of his heart, for his dearest Phillipine. In front of her he has turned boyish, a schoolboy bringing something home for his mother, and she is smoothing down her skirt with nervous hands, as if preparing to throw this robe around her shoulders. She wears a bonnet, though the sun has nearly set, and she wears a scarf wrapped around her neck, while above the scarf her cheeks are flushed with happiness. Half a dozen emigrants from other wagons have stopped whatever they were doing to watch, and you might think a fiddler has just touched bow to string and these two are about to dance the prairie jig wrapped together in a buffalo robe. She is like a girl at a dance. He is laughing a wild, high, adolescent laugh, as Reed climbs off the mare. "Keseberg, you idiot!" Turning to the small circle of observers, with his hands thrown wide, Keseberg says, "Why is this man calling me a criminal?" "You are a criminal! Dammit, man. If the Sioux come after us, you and I will be killed, our wives will be taken, our children too!" He is shouting. His eyes are wide and fierce. Someone calls out, "Hey Jim, what's got into you?" "These are burial robes! But Keseberg thinks they belong to him!" "Better him than the Indians," one fellow says. "Haw haw," laughs another. "I don't know," says a third. "Wouldn't mess with them Sioux." "Me neither," says someone else. "Ain't worth no buffalo skins." "I wouldn't mind pickin' off a brave or two," the first fellow says. "Whatta we got rifles for?" "I think Jim is right. Maybe you'd pick off a few, but you wouldn't live to tell the story. Any way you look at it, we'd be outnumbered a hundred to one, and don't you think otherwise. It ain't worth it. I'd get rid a them hides right now." A dozen more have joined the circle, and the commentary spreads into a noisy debate. Some envy Keseberg's trophies and are content to stand feasting their eyes on his handsome wife, imagining how she will look inside the wagon relaxing on these soft, seductive robes. Others grasp the full weight of this predicament, among them George Donner, an elder in the party, with the look of a patriarch, his face wide, his jaw firm, his hair silver. Though often regarded as a leader, he lacks Jim's eagerness to take command. Donner listens a while, then looks at Keseberg. Quietly he says, "Jim is right. You ought to do what he says, Lewis, and the sooner the better." Now Keseberg cannot look at his wife, who has been mystified by all the turmoil, her eyes darting wildly from voice to voice. She understands enough to fear that her new possession will soon be taken from her, and she clutches the robe to her chest. For the German this is very hard medicine, but he respects George Donner. "All right," he says. "All right. I will do it first thing in the morning." Jim says, "We'd better do it now." Keseberg puffs out his chest and begins to prance back and forth, slamming a fist into his palm, pop pop pop, as if he has been condemned to the firing squad and has now been denied his final request. "And I'll go with you." "I said I'd do it!" Keseberg cries. "My word is good!" Jim says, "You'll need someone to hold your horse." On the ride out, Keseberg refuses to speak. The sun is setting as they come upon the scaffold, about a mile from the wagons and near the bank of a small creek winding toward the Platte. There are other signs of recent encampment, ashes, close-cropped grass. The scaffold is made of four slender poles stuck into the earth, supporting a platform of woven branches lashed with thong. Laid out upon the platform are the remains of a chief. Feathers fall against his black hair. His shield and lance are with him. On the bare soil beneath the scaffold, bleached buffalo skulls are arranged in a circle. As the two men sit on horseback regarding the corpse, the wind around them gradually falls off. Across the prairie Jim can see wind moving, but right here the nearest grass is still. The surface of the creek is slick and motionless. The sky is suddenly sprayed with crimson, while underneath its gaudy panorama, the space in front of them seems lit by some separate and brighter column of afterglow. On his arms the hairs rise. Under him he feels the mare tremble. He instructs Keseberg to wrap the robes across the corpse exactly as he found them, to duplicate the look as closely as he can. As he watches, holding both sets of reins, the horses begin to twitch and rear, as if another animal is nearby. Jim squints toward a grove downstream, sees nothing. All four are eager to get away from there, the men and the horses. As they lope toward the wagons, Keseberg still won't speak. At last Jim says, "Before we set out tomorrow I'll call a meeting of the council. I'm going to propose that you be expelled from the party." He waits. When he hears no reply he turns and sees the blue eyes inspecting him with scorn. "You have put the lives of everyone at risk. But we may be less at risk if you fall back. Do you understand my meaning?" Keseberg's voice is low and harsh. "I have never been spoken to like this." "Well, I am speaking to you like this. I know George Donner will support me. You can resist, if you choose, but I assure you that others on the council will agree. In this wagon party you are no longer welcome." "You are going too far," says Keseberg. "Maybe you'd rather leave tonight and avoid an embarrassment. It's your choice." "I believe in discipline, Mr. Reed. But you have gone too far." In a dramatic burst of horsemanship, Keseberg spurs ahead, kicking up a long plume of dust. Jim gives him plenty of room, lingering in the twilight, to let the dust plume settle, and let his own blood cool down. a few more minutes pass. From the deep grass beyond the clearing, a Sioux brave sits up on his haunches and watches them ride away. He wears a buckskin tunic, arrows in a quiver. He creeps close enough to touch the robes and sniff around the edges. There is a faint white smell. Nothing has been cut or marked. He has never seen such a thing. If the Pawnee had stolen these robes, they would never bring them back. They steal for the insult. They scatter the skulls and throw the body down and defile it. Who are these men? He could have killed them both and taken their scalps, first the one who held the horses, then the bright-haired one whose scalp would be highly prized. He could have gone back with the scalps and reported that he had found the thieves. But now they have returned the robes. Why? It is very strange. What kind of people would do this, take away the buffalo skins, then bring them back? When he can no longer see the men, he stands for a long time listening. Voices come toward him on the wind, distant sounds of women and children. In the near-dark their fires light the sky. It is a village. A village of tents that move. All day he watched them passing along in their white tents. Between one rising and setting of the sun he has seen four villages of white tents, and many horses and many animals like the buffalo, with sharp horns, and men who drive the animals but do not shoot them, though some carry rifles. Are they warriors? They do not have the look of warriors. Where do they come from? Where are they going? Excerpted from Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.