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USA Today Review

USA Today review — July 2007:

"The Donner Party was a group of 81 pioneers trapped in the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47. As some of the party succumbed to winter's wrath, others resorted to cannibalism for survival. Fortunately for weather buffs, while the topic of cannibalism cannot be ignored, consumption of the 'loathsome flesh' is not the focus of Mark McLaughlin's The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm. Rather, the book deals more with the weather patterns during the long winter of 1847 that drove those trapped travelers to such desperate measures.

The miserable winter that these pioneers spent east of the Sierra crest was a culmination of poor planning, a difficult route, bad timing, and a fair amount of plain bad luck. While these different factors have been detailed in any number of books and articles, it is the author's intent in this book to show that it was unusually bad weather that led to the deaths of 36 of the 81 emigrants and left an indelible mark on the survivors.

In an effort to give a storm-by-storm account of that winter's fury, McLaughlin tells the weather story from several perspectives. One viewpoint is based well west of the Sierra, from the deck of several warships—the Congress, the Warren, and the U.S.S. Portsmouth—which were patrolling the California coast during the Mexican-American War. Journal entries from weather observers aboard those ships helped to establish the timing and ferocity of Pacific storms that brought rain to coastal areas such as San Francisco and Monterey. To those accounts, McLaughlin adds weather reports from inland locations such as Napa Valley and Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley.

As the rainy season set in on the coast and interior valleys of California in October and November 1846, the colder climes of the Sierra began to see snow. The pass the Donner Party reached on November 1 would have been hard enough to surmount by wagon train in fair weather, and it's nearly impossible in bad weather. The settlers were forced to retreat and make winter camps at the now-named Donner Lake and Alder Creek, both around 5,800 feet in elevation

The most reliable source of weather information from the winter encampment comes from the diary entries of Patrick Breen. Breen, while doing his best to keep himself and his family of eight alive, kept a record of sky, wind and snow conditions at Donner Lake. He also provided insight into the struggles over the ever-dwindling food supply and the health of other members of the party. It is from Breen's diary entries that the reader gets the best sense of the fleeting hope and growing frustration and desperation felt by these travelers who were unprepared to face the fierce weather of a Sierra winter.

The Donner Party is long gone but certainly not forgotten. In fact, the book closes with two chapters on the archaeological and climatological research that continues to this day, as scientists attempt to better understand exactly what went on in those camps that fateful winter.

As McLaughlin notes, 'The tale of the Donner Party is complex, complicated, and convoluted.' Needless to say, this gripping tale of pioneer survival and weather-related tragedy is also fascinating. Through the careful reconstruction of the written weather records available, the reader of The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm relives the harsh weather and even harsher life-and-death decisions made during the winter of 1846-1847."

— Bob Swanson, assistant weather editor at USA Today


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