Waiting. Passage of Time. Holding Back. The most effective element of Donner: A Passing is how fear and apprehension are conveyed through the waiting, hoping, and taking extra rest at every opportunity, when—as history wants to show—had the adventurers not given in to the allure of rest, they all may have made it alive. Like the journey itself, Youngdahl pulls the reader along…slowly. Even though the ending is foreshadowed effectively by a three-paragraph prologue and is known to most, if not all, the reader wants it to be different this time. The reader pines for better decisions to be made. But they are not.
Chapter 5, lines 4-5: “2 Days. 2 Nights Until Next Water. Next Fresh Grass. Rest.”
For the Donner Party, and for the reader, brief hope.
Only eight lines later. Chapter 5, line 13: “Two days grow three. Four.”
Hope evaporates because we know by now that waiting leads to problems — holding back will lead to death for so many.
By the next chapter, time has chased down the adventures; any benefits of waiting, of resting, dried up. Chapter 6, lines 4-6: “Squinting/at the desert sun everyone sees/the separation of souls and specters.”
A few chapters later, more waiting leads to more bad news. Chapter 9, line 12: “Four days rest.”
Five lines later, fate arrives for some as the first snow “drops over chill bodies as they fell earth.”
Chapter 10, line 1: “Impassable.” Line 11: “Retreat, Build Shelter. Wait.”
And that’s effectively where the Donner Party no longer controlled their own destiny.
The remainder of the poem follows an expected, yet no less haunting, route. It is in the ensuing chapters where freezing, starvation, death and cannibalism are documented as honestly as they must have felt after a while: either eat or die; but eat, and die inside. That cause-and-effect reality is captured in the following verse. Chapter 14, lines 12-18: “A woman watches the heart/of her brother on the fire. In this forest/not a woman/with snowshoes/dies. They cut/from companions/to survive.”
It’s unclear whether the author is trying to be fair and balanced to history, or if there was a deliberate attempt to paint certain men, like Keseberg, as without sympathy. Accounts of Keseberg’s story vary, as does the veracity of his fervor for cannibalism. In the aftermath, Keseberg sued his defamers for libel, and won. Yet the prize was only one dollar, and he was required to pay court costs, which can be taken as proof of what others thought of him, and while they could not prove of what he had done, they found it inevitable given his makeup.
Chapter 24, lines 11-18: “A dented pot of blood near the stove./It is rumored, he bragged: he ate their children,/even called them by name, claimed Tamsen/died of grief upon George’s death. He ate/her instead of a cow half uncovered/by warmth, the meat better tasting./But the stew pot, the scattering of scraps/and blood. Suspicion thawing.”
Youngdahl opts for the sensational details of Keseberg’s last weeks in camp and ends her poem with him, giving too much credit to a man who casts the blackest cloud of the tale. The story of the Donner Party is so much more than Keseberg, but yet he seems to be the one most gravitate to, whether to start, or in this instance, to end. While forty-eight members of the Donner Party did survive through the winter, the author attaches to unrequited hope instead. It’s several lines within Chapter 23 that are the most haunting of the entire poem and resonate as echoes of how unknown the entire journey was, especially to the innocent children for whom the trip was chosen and they were taken from home without ability to object.
Chapter 23, lines 3-11: “Perhaps/they did not know what the meat/was, and could only stare/at the fire, some too young/to remember how they arrived, everything/fragments of oxbows, lost stock,/wagon-axels, mountains, snow/and somewhere an idea/called California.
For forty-two individuals, California never came. In the end, that is why the story is a tragedy, no matter how many lives were saved. The poet had it right all along.