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A Strange and Ghostly Thingby Daniel James Brown
So I wanted to take a fresh look at what happened in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-1847. I wanted to reacquaint readers with what in many ways is an extraordinary tale of ordinary people confronting overwhelming odds — and in many cases overcoming them. To that end, I wanted to personalize and humanize the story by focusing on one person's experience rather than trying to account for everything that all 89 members of the party experienced. So I decided to investigate the experiences of a young woman about whom nobody had ever written much but whose story encapsulates so much of what was both horrific and noble about the story. Her name was Sarah Graves Fosdick, and she was only 21 when she set out for California with her husband of just 10 days in April of 1846. She was full of life and hope and high spirits, though all that would soon change.
I also wanted to update the story with the most recent scientific insights into what happened to Sarah and her companions in the Sierra Nevada. In many ways, the Donner Party story — as a story — is something of a paradox. As time has moved on, the story has become richer even as we have moved away from the events themselves. Many of the early accounts were wildly inaccurate, and it is only in the last few decades that researchers in various disciplines have begun to unearth more systematically some of the truth of what happened. So I studied what we have learned in the last century and a half — the physiology of malnutrition, the psychology of starvation, the climatology and meteorology of the Sierra Nevada, the archaeology that has recently been conducted on Donner Party camp sites, and a number of other discoveries that are increasingly shedding new light on the tragedy.
And, finally, I wanted — within reason — to experience what Sarah had experienced, so that I could write faithfully about the sensory details of her journey and her travails. So I traveled east to her hometown in Illinois and then followed her trail west. Along the way, I walked sections of dusty trail in the Platte River Valley, I climbed up steep canyons in the Wasatch Mountains, I trudged across the searing salt flats of Utah, and I waded through snow up to my waist in the high Sierra. I never suffered a fraction of the hardship and horror that Sarah Fosdick endured, but I got a pretty good sense of what her day-to day-life looked and smelled and sounded like.
But I also discovered something unexpected along the way. I discovered that it was a strange and ghostly thing, this following of a young woman long dead. As I moved farther west, I would often find myself coming around a bend and noticing some feature of the landscape — a mountain, or a stream, or a rock formation — coming into view ahead. I'd see how the early morning light painted the rocks certain colors, and it would occur to me that Sarah must have seen them too, come around that same bend and seen those same rocks, that same streak of rosy pink or violet splashed across their face exactly 161 years before.
I found myself mulling over how powerfully objects sometimes tie us to the dead and to the yet unborn. Who hasn't looked at the moon and contemplated the simple fact that it is the same moon that Plato and Jesus and Shakespeare and our own dead ancestors have seen, and that our future grandchildren will see? And who hasn't felt connected to them by the sudden realization of that shared experience, an experience sometimes spanning millennia?
And there was something else — closely related but subtly different — that occurred to me while looking at those color-swathed rock formations: When she looked at them, Sarah could not have seen their full significance. She might have thought them beautiful. She might have given them no thought at all, let them roll off the surface of her mind. Either way, she must necessarily have missed something essential about them. She could not know that some day a man would look at them and think of her, that he would write a book she likely would have been astonished by, that the book would connect her to thousands of people not yet born. She did not know any of this. She passed the rocks by, left them in the dust, unaware of all that. But the significance was there nonetheless, lying silently implicit in the stone as she passed.
I will not say that the experiences I had looking at those scenes along the road were mystical. But I will say that they brought me much closer to Sarah in a spiritual sense than I ever expected to be. The simple fact of seeing what she had seen, of being yoked together with her across time by simple objects and scenes, created in me the sense of something larger, grander, and more permanent than either of us. It also created a sense of kinship with her, and it subtly enriched my understanding of who Sarah was and therefore what she subsequently went through in the Sierra Nevada. It made her real. And it made me more committed than ever to telling her story faithfully and well in The Indifferent Stars Above.
For a book, too, is an object. And, better than most objects, it ties the past, the present, and the future together. A book is less reticent than stone. My book, to the extent that it succeeds at its role, yokes you and me and Sarah together — weaves us into the fabric of time and space, unifies us, makes all of us a bit more whole. For that is what all books do in the end. They tie up the loose ends of the universe.
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Daniel James Brown is the author of the widely acclaimed Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.