cover image The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

Michael Wallis. Liveright, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-87140-769-6

Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis (David Crockett) reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism. Though nearly synonymous with cannibalism in pop culture lore, the Donner Party's 1846%E2%80%931847 journey receives from Wallis a balanced treatment, showing that the surviving members who chose cannibalism did so as a last resort%E2%80%94and largely because saving their starving children was their priority. Wallis effectively mixes survivors' accounts, trip diaries, and other contemporary sources, delving deep into the backgrounds and dynamics of the multiple families involved in the four-months-long winter wilderness encampment. For example, Tamzene Donner transformed from a botanist who planned to open a school into a resilient mother and wife who fed her children human flesh and refused to leave her desperately ill husband during three different rescue efforts. Wallis explains that the caravan suffered multiple setbacks, including livestock thefts by Native Americans and an unusually long and harsh winter. The leaders also routinely made bad decisions, such as trusting an untested "shortcut" promoted by an armchair guidebook author. The Donner Party's struggles and determination continue to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion. (June)