Wednesday, January 11, 2017

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown

In April of 1846, Franklin Graves decides to relocate his family of nine children to California where the climate is warmer and the land fertile. It would be a decision with serious and life-changing consequences
for all involved.

During the spring, nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves sews herself a new dress for the journey while her family prepares, receiving their two new wagons and selling their cabin and land in Lacon, Illinois. Despite his eagerness to leave, Mary Ann's father, Franklin, delays their departure so their cattle will have grass to eat on the journey. They will take three horses, twenty head of cattle, three wagons and eighteen oxen to pull them on the 1700 mile trek to California. Mary Ann's older sister, Sarah and her husband Jay Fosdick will also travel west.

Eventually the Graves leave Lacon, accompanied by hired hand John Snyder, beginning their five month journey west. The days are monotonous, filled with walking, cooking, rain, mud and the making of a quilt to memorialize their trek. They arrive in St. Joseph in Iowa Territory, one of the last wagons to pass through. They pass through the prairie during the summer, seeing herds of buffalo, gathering their chips to feed the cooking fires. Their first sign of trouble is having over one hundred head of cattle stolen by the Pawnee Indians. When Mary Ann's father and some other men go out to find the cattle they return with only a few head and one dead man, Edward Trimble.

On the fourth of July the group reaches Fort Laramie in the western part of Nebraska Territory. In the fort there are many wagons and lots of information shared. A man named Hastings insists that taking the new southern route will save three weeks, but others insist that the northern route is the proven one. Mary Ann's father decides they will take the route south of Salt Lake and that they will have plenty of time to pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains before fall.

The Graves leave Fort Laramie alone and face days of monotonous walking with no sign they are even heading in the right direction. They arrive at a huge rock, Independence Day, so named because that is when most wagons heading west arrive at this point. It's a subtle reminder to the Graves that they are now weeks behind. At Fort Bridger just east of Great Salt Lake, Jim Bridger tells the Graves that Hastings is waiting ahead to lead them through the new route which has grass and is flat and easy. They buy supplies and two days out meet with another large party, the Donner Party which is awaiting the return of Hastings to lead them onward. The Donner party has sent three men, James Reed, Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton to get Hastings. However only Reed returns telling them that Hastings cannot turn back as he is obligated to help the first party through. The Donner and Graves party move on and eventually meet up with McCutchen and Stanton who are bedraggled and exhausted. They tell the group that the way forward is impassable for them because it is too rugged for the wagons.

While Bill tells the men that the canyon is too steep, James Reed insists that they can move forward. In the end they decide to take a canyon to the north. This proves to be disastrous as the men must cut the trees and haul boulders in order for the wagons to pass. After eleven days of arduous work, in two days the wagons pass through and they finally leave the Wasatch Mountains. Fall sets in and the days are cool. They find a note,badly weathered, telling them that they must travel fast for two days and two nights through the desert to reach water. It takes the Graves three days before they finally walk out of the desert. They are now running out of food and it is decided that Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton will ride ahead and bring back supplies. All the belongings the Graves brought with them from Lacon are now abandoned before the group begins travelling along the Humboldt River.

Tragedy again strikes when James Reed murders John Snyder in a fit of anger. They bury Snyder and banish Reed. The group now walks as fast as it can, hoping to spy the mountains that mean their journey is almost over. Soon they do come to the mountains but Donner's want to stop and rest the cattle while Mary Ann's father does not. Charles Stanton, accompanied by two Indians, Luis and Salvador, arrives with mules loaded with food. However, Bill McCutchen is not with them. Charles tells them they are ten days away from their destination of Sutter's Fort and winter is at least a month away. Mr. Donner decides that the group will rest up a few days before continuing onward. In that time a young man accidentally shoots another and Mr. Donner suffers a deep wound to his hand while repairing a wagon wheel. This leads Franklin Graves to decide to leave without the Donners, taking the Breens, the Reeds and Charles Stanton. But a day out, the Graves party encounters a prolonged snow storm. As the days pass, each with more snow,  travel becomes difficult. Mary Ann and her family now face the dreadful possibility that they will be trapped in the mountains and may not live to see California.


To Stay Alive is the heartbreaking account of the "Donner Party" tragedy of 1846-47 in which only forty-five of the eighty-one people trapped in the mountains survived. Although many wagon trains set out for the west that year, a combination of factors worked together to cause the tragedy. Author Skila Brown in her note at the back of the novel states that the combination of an early snow and the lengthy time it took for the party to cross through the Wasatch Mountains, the route suggested by Hastings, contributed to the Graves and the rest of the Donner party being trapped in the mountains in deadly weather.

Brown tells the Donner Party story from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves. Her research into the tragedy revealed Graves to be a fascinating person, an attractive woman with a strong, determined personality - the exact type of storyteller she wanted for the novel. The story is told in verse, some narrative, some free, and some shape poems, one poem per page. These poems are placed into five seasons, beginning with Spring 1846, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring 1847.

To Stay Alive portrays the struggles Mary Ann and the rest of the settlers experience to stay alive in the harsh Sierra Nevada winter. The use of verse allows Brown to omit some of the more gruesome details of what Mary Ann Graves and her family endured as they slowly starved and froze in the snowy, frigid mountains. Yet the poems do convey their desperation and revulsion as they are forced to make the most awful of decisions to stay alive - to eat those who have died. The poem "something" conveys how, as their circumstances deteriorated, cannibalism becomes a possible way to survive. The dead become "it" and "meat".


                we could eat it
                                        oh god
                                 we could
there's flesh there     like with the bear
                                                     the beef
                                                   it's meat
                we could eat it

                            oh god          we could

What Mary Ann might have been thinking as she lived through this is captured in many of the poems that follow.

"We could do that.
We could.
It would keep us alive."

And when it's decided that they will eat human flesh,

"I look around at the faces, see
the agonizing dread because it's clear
this thing
will be done."

Later on in the poem titled "Cold",

"Amanda slices meat,
lays it out to dry,...

We all sit, wait,
shamefully hungry,

except Salvador and Luis
who've moved over, revolted."

Brown foreshadows the coming tragedy and cannibalism in her poetry. For example, the poem, "We Wait" foreshadows the tragedy that awaits the Graves family partly due to Franklin Graves' decision to delay their  journey west.

Even though he's itching to go,
Father says we wait.

Wait deeper into spring,
until the roots

in the ground along the way are closer
to moving, pushing

up, growing tall, sweet,
into food for out cattle.

wait as long as we dare, hoping
winter won't come and cool everything

before we have a chance to arrive,
before our five-month journey has ended.

Brown hints too at the future possibility of cannibalism when Mary Ann and William Eddy are struggling to climb one of the mountains. The two hear a noise in the bush but do not realize it is Charles Stanton who has fallen behind. Eddy is prepared to shoot what he hopes is an animal and therefore something to eat.  At the last minute he sees that it is Charles.

"I see Eddy's face
lower to the side of the gun
as he adjusts his arm and then

through the bushes
comes Charles,
out of breath, he staggers in, slumps down
at the base of a tree.

We watch him pant.
Eddy lowers his eyes before he lowers his gun,
and I let out my breath.


He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

To Stay Alive is a skillfully crafted piece of historical fiction about an event that still garners much interest and controversy to this day. The novel asks the reader to consider "the choices we would make if we were on the brink of death." Readers who do further research will discover that To Stay Alive is a much sanitized telling of what was a very gruesome tragedy that involved murder, cannibalism and outright selfishness. For example the group trying to walk out of the mountains on snowshoes begins to consider their Indian guides as food and begin to dehumanize them, rationalizing killing them for food:  "don't have a soul", "like a lame horse that sometimes needs to be relieved of its suffering...". Mary Ann warns the Luis and Salvador to leave the camp and in terror they flee. But William Eddy hunts them down, kills them and butchers them. In the poem No Indians, the poetry is to the point:

"Eddy takes the lead, veers
us over ground we've covered.
His gun is out as if he's 
hunting game." 

In the poem, "numb" cannibalism is vaguely described but the meaning is clear,
i feel nothing
not my fingers
or my toes
or my thighs
or my neck
or my cheeks
or my tongue

or the warmth

eddy places in my hand

or the taste of it

as it brushes past my lips..."

Overall, To Stay Alive is a very good recounting of a piece of American history (and tragedy). Brown includes a map at the front of her novel, showing the route taken by the Graves from Illinois to California, as well as a list of all involved.  There is also a detailed Author's Note at the conclusion which is worth reading and lists the outcomes for all involved.
For more information on each family in the Donner Party and their fates check out Survivors of Donner Party.

The March 1992 issue of Discover Magazine, March published an article, Living Through the Donner Party which discusses the Donner Party tragedy and why some people perished while others managed to survive the harrowing conditions.

Book Details:

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2016
275 pp.

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