Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Snow Mountain Passage (2001), by James D. Houston

I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading the work of James D. Houston, but better late than never. The scarcity of quality historical fiction about early California made my belated discovery especially exciting. Steinbeck is great, but short on actual historical people and events. After that, it's Ramona and Zorro. In addition, Houston lived in Santa Cruz as I do, and is one of the most accomplished local writers ever. Snow Mountain Passage (2001) was a large step toward filling the void of well-written California hist-fic although, sadly, Houston himself is no longer with us.

The central historical event of Snow Mountain Passage is the ill-fated 1846 westward migration of the Donner party, which became trapped by an early onset of winter and was forced to spend almost four months in the snow at the summit of its transit of the Sierra Nevada Range. Following  rescue in February of 1847, lurid tales of starvation, death and cannibalism made the story uncomfortable for many, especially for the survivors.

Houston tells the story mainly from the viewpoints of James Frazier Reed and his younger daughter Patty. Reed was one of the party's organizers and leaders, but was forced to leave after a controversial incident on the trail that resulted in the death of another man. Ironically, separation from the main party allowed Reed to cross the mountains before the heavy snows of October made passage impossible. Once he realized that the party was trapped, he spent the next four months attempting to organize a rescue, traveling all over northern California seeking help and support. Compounding the difficulty was the onset of the Mexican-American War, begun in June of 1846, that had taken most of the able-bodied men away to fight with Colonel John C. Fremont in the south.

Patty Read stayed with her mother, brother and sister in the main Donner party, and lived through that awful winter. In the novel, she remembers those events from the perspective of old age, living out her final years at her daughter's home in Santa Cruz (as she actually did). Patty's account of the desperate day-to-day ordeal in the mountains contrasts jarringly with her father's frantic quest to rescue her and the rest of the party.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes.  I knew the general outlines of the Donner party story, but had never heard of James Read's rescue efforts, and how they were complicated by the war in California. This novel inspired me to read more about state history in that time, in addition to the whole westward exploration/migration period.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. While the Donner party - during the entire year of its trip to California - was almost entirely cut off from larger events, Houston did an excellent job of keeping their story firmly set in a larger context.   
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Where Houston's interpretation of events might be controversial, he let the reader know that others had different stories. Patty Read's reflections come over 70 years after the fact, and she defends her father's actions while acknowledging the various rumors, theories and speculations that stubbornly clung to the tale of the Donner party over the years. The account of other historical events squares with what I've read elsewhere.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
As much as it can ever be.  The usual caveat applies: this is a novel, and the historical characters are by necessity fictionalized. As far as I could tell, there are no purely fictional major characters in Snow Mountain Passage. Houston's skillful writing brings interesting historical characters such as John Sutter to life without violating the historical record.
Score = 5
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. See the next blog entry - Bird of Another HeavenScore = 5

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