Monday, December 03, 2007

Mortal Decisions

Well, it looks like geography will prevent me from seeing another Donner Party performance -- Stuart Richel informs me that he will be reprising his role as James F. Reed in "Mortal Decisions, a Diary of the Donner Party."

Richel [pronounced rih-SHELL] wrote this one-man show, which premiered in San Jose, California, in 1994, and has presented it at other venues, including the first-night banquet at the Donner Party Sesquicentennial (August 1996) in Reno, Nevada.

He will be presenting it again at the Metropolitan Playhouse in Greenwich Village for four performances between February 8-16, 2008. I can't imagine being anywhere near New York then, but would very much like to attend , as I have only the vaguest recollection of seeing it in Reno.

For more about Mr. Richel and his performance, see the website.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


When I first heard about Ron Cunningham's Donner Party ballet performed recently in Sacramento, I was sorry to have missed it. Not anymore! A correspondent wrote to the paper and learned of a "plot twist" -- George Donner didn't die of gangrene, no, no! Instead, the ballet suggests he was beaten to death by disgruntled party members. Tch! As if the memories of Donner Party members haven't been sullied enough, their ordeal misrepresented, their sufferings turned into stupid jokes, and now this. I'm glad I didn't see this "artistic" interpretation of the Donner Party and hope it was a flop.

Here endeth the rant.

Friday, October 26, 2007

But is it art?

The Donner Party has inspired a lot of artistic interpretations over the years -- novels, short stories, children's books, poems, paintings, plays, even an opera. Two works in the news of late are Jim Shaw's The Donner Party and Ron Cunningham's A Woman's Journey: The Tamsen Donner Story.

Shaw's work was in the news a while back when it came up for auction at Christie's. It's an installation described by one reviewer as "where Mormons meet feminists over a scary, scary meal." It consists of dining tables in the form of flat-topped covered wagons, arranged in a circle in front of a backdrop, with place settings of assorted, well, "junk" is the word that comes to mind. The Donner Party connection is fairly remote; Shaw doesn't use historical images or sources, for instance. As it turns out, the work is a takeoff on Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party and no doubt it's very clever, but I'm not impressed. (I'm actually quite annoyed that Shaw fell for Ric Burns' goofy story about the Donner Party labeling packages of human flesh.) You can find out more reading the New York Art article, or, for an up close, detailed look, check out the Yahoo!video. Don't say I didn't warn you.

In 1977 Ruth Whitman's poem cycle Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey was published. Now, 30 years later, Ron Cunningham's ballet A Woman's Journey: The Tamsen Donner Story is being performed at the Sacramento Community Theatre; see the Sacramento News & Reviews article for the performance schedule and price information. Cunningham's isn't the first dance interpretation of Whitman, however; Julia Ince performed her own version in Tamzene's hometown of Newburyport, Mass. , in 1992 and again at the Donner Party Sesquicentennial in 1996.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"Suspicious" fire burns historic Donner Houghton house to the ground

An alert Donner buff sent me the following link to an article in the San Jose Mercury News of today, July 19, 2007:

Oh, I am sick about this! A San Jose preservationist contacted me for information about Eliza Donner Houghton back about 2002. I was pleased to learn that Eliza's home was still standing and had been deemed a local landmark. Last I heard, there were plans to relocate the house to a San Jose park where other historic buildings had been moved.

Eliza's 1911 book, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, contains photos of her house and yard in San Jose. (I always thought it was a bit strange of her to include them.) This was an earlier house, which Eliza and her husband either remodeled extensively or tore down and built over in 1881. They only lived in the new house for three years, as they moved to Long Beach in 1884. This second house, the one that just burned, was surrounded by a fairly large yard, which allowed one to view and admire its classic lines. In 1909, however, it was moved, placed cheek-by-jowl with other buildings on a busy city street, and turned into apartments. To see what the pre-1881 house and grounds looked like, click here and scroll down to pp. 356-357, where there are links to printable versions of the photos from Eliza's book.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Books, books, books

Lots of newish Donner Party books out there or on the way.

First, I recently acquired Green Light (2000), by Patrick Breen. (No, not that Patrick Breen!) It's a horror story about a teenager named Patrick Breen who goes to a creepy summer camp in the Sierra Nevada and... well, let's just say there's a reason why it was published by a vanity press. Although it's not as awful as one might expect, I wouldn't recommend it to anybody but a diehard Donner Party fanatic.

There's another vanity press novel with a young Donner Party descendant for a protagonist, Itchy Donner (2007) by Doug Lambeth. Eleven-year-old Itchy has a rash, hence his nickname, and is obsessed with his pioneer ancestry. It's not Pulitzer Prize material, but not too bad, either. I should mention that even though the book is about a child, it's not a children's book. Available at for download in PDF or as a print-on-demand paperback.

Next year Oxford University Press will be publishing Ethan Rarick's Desperate Journey, the first credible attempt at a Donner Party narrative history since George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger. (No, I'm not badmouthing my own book. Unfortunate Emigrants isn't a narrative history but an anthology of primary sources.) Unfortunately, Ethan doesn't seem to have much sympathy for the Donner Party and has also ta'en a scunner at James F. Reed. Granted, Reed was hard for some people to deal with and he certainly had his faults, but he had a lot of good qualities as well. Sigh. And I'd so hoped that we could get away from the namecalling that's poisoned so much Donner Party writing since Winter of Entrapment came out in 1992... We'll see what the finished result is like.

One book I'm really looking forward to is Daniel James Brown's work focusing on the Graves family and Sarah Graves Fosdick. Dan has a contract with HarperCollins; no anticipated publication date that I know of, but he's done a lot of great research and it will be very interesting to see what he does with it.

Catching up

Well, it's been a long time since I blogged, but I haven't been utterly idle. Lots going on!
Mostly I've been working on my Donner Party bibliography, which now numbers over 4700 citations. (There are hundreds more piled up that I haven't entered into my bibiliographic management program yet -- I use EndNote X.) The bibliography includes just about anything Donner Party: primary documents, secondary histories, newspaper and magazine articles, obituaries, novels about the Donner Party, novels inspired by the Donner Party, graphic novels, children's books, movies, TV shows, radio programs, t-shirts, ephemera, and lots more.
What I haven't done is edit the New Light on the Donner Party website. Frustrating, because I have all sorts of things to add to or edit. Unfortunately my ISP no longer supports the extensions Microsoft requires to run FrontPage, so I have to find new software and figure out how to use it. It could take a while, but hopefully by the end of the summer...

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hastings debate

I'm sometimes asked to review other people's work, usually written, but this month I was asked to review something different: a debate. Eighth grade history teacher Eric Langhorst of Liberty, Missouri, divided his third-period class into two sections and showed them Ric Burns' documentary, after which the two teams debated whether or not Lansford W. Hastings was responsible for the Donner Party disaster. I listened to an MP3 of the debate received via e-mail (a podcast of the debate will soon be available at and e-mailed Mr. Langhorst my comments. As usually happens, the pro-Hastings and anti-Hastings sides both made some excellent points and some errors, but in spite of their limited exposure to the subject I think the students did a pretty good job.

Catching up

I may have been inactive on the blog for the past two months, but I haven't forsaken the Donner Party -- I've been busy researching, reading, and e-mailing. Especially e-mailing! A bumper crop of students are working on Donner Party projects for National History Day this year -- I must have had ten different groups contact me for information. I received e-mail from one person working on a Donner Party screenplay and from someone else planning a documentary. (I get similar requests every year, but 2007 is getting off to a fast start.) I've reviewed some manuscripts and critiqued a debate. There's lots of interest in the Donner Party out there and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, finally results.