The Indifferent Stars Above is a fascinating and heartbreaking look at the Donner Party and their tragic journey. Poor choices, bad information, and human greed led to the suffering and death of many in the group, and Brown sheds light on all the small twists and turns that lead to the fateful entrapment of the party in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
There’s a lot of interesting history included here, especially for people, who like me, really just know the basics of the story: people traveling out west, stuck in the snowy mountains, forced to resort to cannibalism. But Brown has done his research, and his narrative unfolds in such a way that you feel as if you’re in the mountains with these families, suffering through their losses and heartbreaks first as they travel and then as they fight for survival.
Although the group is rather large (and made up of many more families than just the Donners, which was something I didn’t know beforehand), Brown chooses to focus mostly on the newly-married Sarah Fosdick and her family. Sarah’s story begins with so much hope and joy, and it ends so tragically. I had to cheat about halfway through the book to see what happened to her husband and her family because my heart just couldn’t take it. Without spoiling too much, it was not a happy ending for all the members of the Graves-Fosdick family.
Really, this is a hard book to read. Our experiences today are so incredibly different from what the pioneers had to face, and it’s hard to truly imagine what Sarah and all the others of the Donner party endured while I sit on my couch snuggled up under a blanket with some hot chocolate and my headphones. But Brown’s detailed research gets you as close as possible, and while you won’t walk away from this book feeling happy, you’ll certainly be more knowledgeable about the fate of the Donner party and about the resiliency of the human spirit.