cover image Snow Mountain Passage

Snow Mountain Passage

James D. Houston. Knopf Publishing Group, $24 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41103-8

The myth of California has been a preoccupation of Houston's in both his fiction (Continental Drift) and nonfiction (Californians). Here he reimagines the saga of perhaps the most infamous of California dreamers: the ill-fated Donner Party. The story is told primarily from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the party, who sets out in a luxurious, fully equipped wagon he calls the Palace Car, with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Somewhere in Nevada, jealousy and trumped-up murder charges oblige him to ride ahead alone, leaving his family behind with the party. When the wagon train is stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevada, Reed must try on his own to assemble a rescue team. His efforts bring him into contact with petty despots (John Sutter, for example), thieves and opportunists, as well as people of uncommon nobility and dignity. In making Reed central to the story, Houston is true to history (the Donner brothers were marginal players in the drama) as he presents a compelling portrait of a man who was a mixture of renegade and hero, his unrealistic dreams of grandeur imperiling his family. Alternating with Reed's tale are trail notes written from memory 75 years later by his daughter Patty, depicting the despair and madness besetting starving members of the snowed-in families. A dispassionate observer at age eight, Patty learns to trust and reveal her compassion, and sitting by the bay in Santa Cruz as an old woman, she brings a redemptive note to an undertaking usually viewed with reflexive loathing. Haunting and immediate, Houston's novel reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability and moral ambiguity. (Apr.) Forecast: This could be a breakout book for Houston, who has a solid but mostly local reputation. His previous efforts have fared well critically, but a 40,000 first printing signals Knopf's commitment to leading his latest into the promised land of higher sales.