Westward Ho With a Fresh Air Bump

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis (Norton/Liveright; OverDrive Sample) is moving up the Amazon charts, currently at #62 from #9,956, thanks to a feature on NPR’s Fresh Air.

The struggling Donner Party is known for restoring to cannibalism to survive, but Wallis says “there’s so much more. That’s why I wanted to tell the back story.”

Wallis details the hardships of the journey and how they broke the members of the party down, both physically and psychologically. Sadly, many of their problems came from their own errors, such as packing too much, taking the wrong route, misjudging the weather, and assuming too much while knowing too little.

On what can be learned from their story, Wallis says “I think it tells us not only about the American West but really about the whole nation … Those of us who do not learn our history are doomed to repeat it … The words that ring out to me continually are two words that combined can be very fatal, then as now, and those words are: ignorance and arrogance.”

True West reviews the book in an illustrated account, writing it “will be considered for many years the primary volume for students and scholars seeking a detailed and well-annotated history of the tragic tale of emigration on the Overland Trail to California.”

PW stars it, writing Wallis “reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism.”

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