As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.

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