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3 8 6 WAL 3 7 .3 F a l l 2 0 0 2 research to render each character an aura of authenticity. Moreover, the profes­ sions and obsessions are made relevant to the themes of each story. The stories in Yellow show a promising writer with an inexhaustible range. Snow Mountain Passage. By James D. Houston. N ew York: Alfred A . Knopf, 2001. 317 pages, $24-00/$l4.00. Reviewed by David Fenimore University of N evada, Reno Houston’sseventh novel is based on one ofthe most familiar episodes in the history of western emigration. The Donner Party arrived at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada in late October 1846, only a few days after snow closed the eponymous pass. As more storms rolled in, they hunkered down for the winter, eating ox hides, bootlaces, and, finally, to a more limited extent than popular tra­ dition would have it, the bodies of their deceased companions. Thirty-five out of eighty-one died, plus several members of the first few rescue parties. Survivor James Reed provides Houston’s principal point-of-view character, based on well-known facts: banished from the emigrant train for killing a team­ ster in self-defense, Reed rode ahead and crossed into California in time to join the Mexican War. In the springhe returned with one ofthe rescue parties, bring­ ing his family safely over into San Jose. Dramatic scenes of starvation and can­ nibalism during the winter at Donner Lake—usually the focus of historical as well as fictional accounts—are here related in impressionistic flashbacks by his daughter Patty Reed, who was eight years old in 1846-47 but now looks back as an elderly woman rocking on her porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Unlike previous versions of the Donner story, which tend to dwell on those grisly and sometimes fanciful details, Houston concerns himself more with the natural and multicultural environment of a wild and distant frontier. The Reeds and other, less sympathetic Anglo characters move across an enormous and mys­ terious California landscape, fertile and full ofpromise. The Mexican Californios are treated with contempt by the settlers and the U.S. Army (but not by Reed), and the Indians are displaced, exploited, and, in two cases, killed for food. Houston incorporates many such historical details to paint an unromanti­ cized, revisionist portrait of early California. When Reed finally arrives at Captain John A. Sutter’s fort, the primary goal and sanctuary for overland emi­ grants, he is greeted by the head of a Mokolumne chief impaled on the gatepost, staring at him through pecked-out eye sockets. One image like this tells more about the Golden State than all the ersatz scenes of bloodsmeared children eat­ ing their parents’ livers that are so often retailed as Donner Party history. Thankfully, Houston steers clear of the social Darwinism, manufactured heroes, and fabricated gore on sale in the best-known narrative of the Donner Party, George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger (rev. ed. 1960). As recent scholar­ ship has shown, Stewart used questionable sources, including sensational news­ BOOK REVIEW S 3 8 7 paper accounts published, in certain cases, before all the survivors had arrived at Sutter’s. In some ways, his purported nonfiction is less reliable a history than Houston’s novel. But as is often the case in western novels, Houston’s meticu­ lously rendered setting at last steals the limelight from his plot as well as from his historical and fictional cast of characters. In one scene, Reed confronts the swollen Sacramento River, the surging confluence of all the creeks and rivers that channel water from the mountain ranges east and west to make the broad stream that divides the valley. . . . The Sacramento flows on south to the delta, and the Feather River is a brown flood pouring into the Sacramento, and the Bear River dumps into the Feather, spilling down out of the foothills. (252, 258) Bound for the high country, Reed and his fellow rescuers celebrate this vision of California’s world-class watershed by passing a bottle around the campfire. One man shows offa little wooden whistle he’sbought at Sutter’s Fort forhis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 386-387
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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