Deceived: The Story of the Donner Party by Peter R. Limburg
Published: October 1983
Pages: 240 (hardcover)
Genre/s: Non Fiction, History
Source: Own library
A wagon train heading west in 1846 is a few weeks behind schedule but still expecting to make their way across the Sierra Nevadas before the snowfall. Soon, they join another wagon train taking a new cut-off that supposedly saves two weeks of travel time but has never been tried by wagons. Known as the Donner Party, after leader George Donner, the group endures weeks of grueling travel and mishaps, including losing most of the oxen and some wagons before finally coming to the Sierras. Choosing to send the younger and more healthier travelers ahead to bring help from Sutter's Fort, the others stay behind and wait. Deceived is the true and tragic story of the Donner Party, the story of a hopeful dream turned into horror and disaster. They lived it -- or died in it.
Years ago I read a horror novel that was set in the location where the Donner Party met their fate - it wasn't really about the Donner Party but a fictonalised horror story using those that died as murderous ghosts. I don't remember much more about the book, but it triggered an interest in my non-fiction loving heart - and so I tracked down a copy of Deceived and there it sat, unread, until I had a non-fiction craving.
Deceived takes journal entries and interviews of survivors of the ill-fated wagon party, of experienced mountain men and the men that mounted the rescue attempts after the majority of the people became trapped by snow more than twelve feet deep and uses them to make a narrative of the journey from Illinois to California. The journal entries make it feel more realistic, but otherwise Peter Limburg does a pretty good job of making it into a page-turning story.
There are, naturally, a lot of characters - 81 people formed the Donner Party, so some of them tend to blend into others, but the main characters - George Donner, James Reed, Patrick Breen and William Eddy stand out for their individual characteristics and actions during the journey, whilst trapped in the mountains, and particularly for Reed and Eddy, their brave attempts to save their families.
Being written in the 1980's, this particular book does use some language that probably wouldn't be acceptable in today's writing - the terms for native Americans and mentally-disabled persons aren't exactly politically correct, but at the time were completely acceptable words, so my bringing it up is more of a warning than a criticism.
There are also a lot of descriptions of the landscape, the placement of the cabins around Truckee Lake and at times it does get a little confusing as there is so much to imagine, but I found it very difficult to put Deceived down - I wanted to know what would happen next, and cheer on the people I liked and grumble at the ones I despised. From a non-fiction book perspective, it's quite well written and very engaging - the facts, figures and events are presented in a way that makes them part of the story rather than annoying extras.
Probably most famous for the fact that almost all the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive, although that subject does play an important part in the story, Limburg is very non-judgemental in his writing - he makes the desperation of the survivors clear rather than just condemning their actions.
Deceived also covers what becomes of the survivors after they finally arrive in California, including the last survivor, Keseberg, who became infamous for his cannibalism and general horribleness, and it was interesting to see how the key characters made their way in the world despite their terrible hardships.
My interest in learning more about the Donner Party was completely satisfied by Deceived - it was interesting as well as compassionate, and the despair and hopelessness of the survivors really came to life on the page.