Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Finishing Line Press, 2008
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Donner: A Passing, chronicles the voyage of the Donner Party. Those who lack a complete mental historical referent for the singular journey of this unfortunate group are given sufficient background in the epigraphs from two of the members and The Hastings Guide for Emigrants to California. A quote from Virginia Reed is chilling: “We bade farewell to kindred and friends and all my little schoolmates had come to kiss me, Father with tears in his eyes tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell… At last the drivers cracked their whips, the oxen moved slowly. The long journey had begun …”
The chapbook is comprised of one long poem chronicling in eerie detail the events of the 1846-1847 sojourn. In leaving for the trip, Youngdahl opens with the hope and disillusionment of the party, whose every expectation seems so portentous to an audience who knows the outcome, “as if movement could stop movement/ memories rattle into miles.” Then come the beginnings of hunger and heat, the leaving of the prairie for the desert, and the trek into snow and mountains.
“In only a few miles/ August blows over” and the first dead are soon buried. Children and animals suffer from lack of water:
Mary’s River offers little relief
just mud stewing.
Donner families go alone.
A company cracked.
As hunger and fear take over the starving party, the inevitable comes to its fruition.
Despite a few areas where the author could present events less “tellingly,” most moments ring true and vivid. The series is candidly achieved and probes the old story/history, falling just shy of asking if the same could happen again. Youngdahl’s observations are appropriately trim, cutting to the heart of every situation. As a collection, Donner: A Passing is an interpretative work not soon to be excised from memory.