Snow Mountain Passage – A Novel of the Donner Party, by James D. Houston

When one decides to take on an historical fiction writing project, where does one start? In an era in which agents and editors are hyper-conscious of the need for unique stories – or unusual slants on old stories – this question is important.
Since I’ve nudged my writing toward non-fiction and historical fiction, I’ve taken on more non-fiction reading. This book of Houston’s has taught me a few important things about that genre, perhaps the most important being: Who should be narrating a fairly well known story (told in a new way)?
In the early ‘seventies, George Keithley wrote a long epic poem about Houston’s subject here, the U.S.’s only documented case of cannibalism, The Donner Party. In Keithley’s amazing work, he allowed George Donner, leader of a group of emigrants traveling from Illinois to California in the 1840s, to narrate his tale.
His story is told well enough: The conflict between Jim Reed, a prominent member of the party, and a hateful German named Keseberg. Reed’s forcing a decision on the party to take a southerly path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and across a deadly stretch of desert. Reed’s killing a member of the party who had attacked him. Reed’s expulsion from the party. The party being stranded in the mountains and nearly starving.
Houston astutely seized on Reed’s persona to tell half of his version of the tale. The wisdom in focusing on Reed was to follow him, after his expulsion, into California. This allowed Houston to grant readers an historical passage through California’s evolution from a Spanish colony, to a quasi-colony of Mexico, to a California toying with the idea of an independent nation, to the influx of easterners, and then a war between Mexico/California and U.S. militias – – all of this just prior to the California Gold Rush. Rather than take a predictable path through the Donner experience, he pushed those fated emigrants to the background to give us little known California history.
In structuring his story, however, Houston didn’t forget the unfortunates Reed left behind. He alternated present tense, third person passages that followed Jim Reed’s adventures with past tense, first person passages by one of Reed’s children, Patty Reed, who stayed with the emigrants. In this way, he provided both stories in one coherent novel, but set them apart grammatically—and dramatically. Writers, take heed: this is the sort of decision-making that gets one published.
Houston’s work here isn’t flawless, but it reaches as high as it aspires – to provide unusual twists on history in an elegant narrative that, for the most part, does his clever story structure justice. My only complaints are twofold: his dialogue often seems trite and non-dramatic – hardly as skilled as his narrative. Second, Patty’s narrative is done in a slightly inconsistent voice. But this is writerly nit-picking that won’t deter future readers from enjoying a well-told story.
A footnote: I’m always second-guessing my own work, particularly when I read something structured similarly. Having recently finished writing my tale of WWII’s eastern front, largely from the point of view of a German Stuka pilot, Houston’s structure provided a fine lesson in split viewpoints that, from a reader’s perspective worked well. Happily, my story proved eerily parallel, with a twist: the German viewpoint in third person, past tense, and snippets of the Soviet viewpoint in third person, present tense. All this sandwiched between marginal viewpoints of the U.S. and British Air Forces. As a writer, I often fear I don’t see the forest for the trees. So it’s always great to reassure oneself regarding decisions made by reading a well done, successful novel.


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