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  • Snow Mountain Passage
  • Written by James D. Houston
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307427823
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Snow Mountain Passage

Written by James D. HoustonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James D. Houston


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42782-3
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Snow Mountain Passage is a powerful retelling of the most dramatic of our pioneer stories—the ordeal of the Donner Party, with its cast of young and old risking all, its imprisoning snows, its rumors of cannibalism. James Houston takes us inside this central American myth in a compelling new way that only a novelist can achieve.

The people whose dreams, courage, terror, ingenuity, and fate we share are James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner Party, and his wife and four children—in particular his eight-year-old daughter, Patty. From the moment we meet Reed—proud, headstrong, yet a devoted husband and father—traveling with his family in the "Palace Car," a huge, specially built covered wagon transporting the Reeds in grand style, the stage is set for trouble. And as they journey across the country, thrilling to new sights and new friends, coping with outbursts of conflict and constant danger, trouble comes. It comes in the fateful choice of a wrong route, which causes the group to arrive at the foot of the Sierra Nevada too late to cross into the promised land before the snows block the way. It comes in the sudden fight between Reed and a drover—a fight that exiles Reed from the others, sending him solo over the mountains ahead of the storms.

We follow Reed during the next five months as he travels around northern California, trying desperately to find means and men to rescue his family. And through the amazingly imagined "Trail Notes" of Patty Reed, who recollects late in life her experiences as a child, we also follow the main group, progressively stranded and starving on the Nevada side of the Sierras.

Snow Mountain Passage is an extraordinary tale of pride and redemption. What happens—who dies, who survives, and why—is brilliantly, grippingly told.

From the Hardcover edition.


Somewhere in Nebraska

June 1846

They have been following the sandy borders of the Platte through level country that changes little from day to day, an undulating sea of grasses broken here and there by clumps of trees along the river. Jim Reed likes it best in late afternoon, the low sun giving texture to the land, giving each hump and ripple its shadow and its shape, while the river turns to gold, a broad molten corridor.

He likes being alone at this time of day, with the mare under him. He wears a wide-brim hat, a loose shirt of brown muslin, a kerchief knotted around his neck. His trousers are stuffed into high leather boots, and his rifle lies across the saddle. He has been scouting ahead, in search of game, and now, as he takes his time returning, his reverie is interrupted by the sight of another rider heading toward the wagons. As the man and horse draw nearer, Reed recognizes him and calls out.

"Mr. Keseberg!"

The German is not going to stop, so Jim overtakes him.

"Keseberg, hold on! What are you carrying there?"

"Something for my wife, to help her sleep a little easier."

Jim rides in closer. Two shaggy hides are heaped across the pommel. "Looks like buffalo."

"Indeed it is."

Jim has not seen a buffalo for several days. Keseberg isn't much of a shot, in any event, nor could he have skinned a creature for its hide, even had he somehow brought one down.

"May I ask where it comes from?"

"This was a gift."

"A gift?"

"From a dead Indian. The best Indian is a dead Indian. Isn't that what you Americans say?"

Keseberg seems to think this is funny. His mouth spreads in a boastful grin.

"Some say that. I do not."

"But surely you will agree that these are fine specimens."

Keseberg is a handsome fellow, with penetrating blue eyes and a full head of blond hair that hangs to his collar. Knowing that he crossed the ocean less than two years ago, Jim is willing to make allowances. He wants to get along with this man, though he does not like him much. They will all need one another sooner or later.

"Have you had much experience with Indians, Keseberg?"

"As little as possible."

"If these robes come from a funeral scaffold, you'd better put them back."

His smile turns insolent. "So you can ride out later and take them for yourself?"

"When I want a buffalo robe I will trade for it, not steal it."

"And in the meantime you would leave these out here to rot in the sun and in the rain."

This remark seems to please Keseberg. His face is set, as if all his honor is at stake and he has just made a telling point. Clearly he has no idea what he has done, nor does he care.

Jim looks off toward the circle of wagons, which are drawn up for the night about a quarter mile away. He does not see himself as a superstitious man. He sees himself as a practical man. Stealing robes from a funeral scaffold is simply foolish for anyone to try, given all they've heard about the Sioux. It nettles him; it riles him. He does not like being snared in another man's foolishness.

Near the wagons he sees animals grazing, children running loose, burning off the day's stored restlessness. Women hunker at the cooking fires. His wife will soon be laying out a tablecloth wherever she can find a patch of grass. "We're going to stay civilized," she will say to someone, once or twice a day, "no matter how far into the wilderness we may wander."

Such a poignant scene it is, and all endangered now by the thoughtless greed of this fellow who pulled up to the rear of the party on just such an evening and asked if he could travel with them. George Donner had met the man briefly in St. Louis before they crossed the Mississippi. At the time Jim had no reason to protest. Keseberg is young and fit, somewhere in his early thirties, and he is not a drifter or a desperado as some of the younger, single riders have turned out to be. He looks prosperous enough. He has two full wagons, one driven by a hired man. He has six yoke of oxen, two children, a pretty wife. She can barely speak English, but Keseberg speaks quite well for one so recently arrived. He is something of a scholar, too, knows four languages in all, or so he claims. The other German travelers have welcomed him, and so has Donner, whose parents come from Germany. Jim has never had any trouble with Germans. But he sees now that he is going to have trouble being civil to Keseberg. Rumors have been circulating that he beats his wife. This is why she wears so many scarves and bonnets, Margaret whispers, even on the warmest days. Jim shrugged this off at first. Now he wonders. Into Keseberg's eyes has come a look that seems to say he is capable of such things. Defiant. Selfish.

"Mr. Keseberg, these robes are not yours to keep."

"Nonsense," he says.

Jim's color rises. "They have to be returned!"

With sudden gaiety that could be a form of mockery, Keseberg says, "My God, man! The sun is going down! The day is done! My dinner will be waiting!"

He gallops away toward the wagons, sitting tall, as if he is a show rider in a circus troupe.

By the time Jim catches up to him, Keseberg has dismounted and is holding high one of the long robes for his wife to see, speaking endearments in German as he presents her with this gift, for his sweet one, the companion of his heart, for his dearest Phillipine. In front of her he has turned boyish, a schoolboy bringing something home for his mother, and she is smoothing down her skirt with nervous hands, as if preparing to throw this robe around her shoulders. She wears a bonnet, though the sun has nearly set, and she wears a scarf wrapped around her neck, while above the scarf her cheeks are flushed with happiness.

Half a dozen emigrants from other wagons have stopped whatever they were doing to watch, and you might think a fiddler has just touched bow to string and these two are about to dance the prairie jig wrapped together in a buffalo robe. She is like a girl at a dance. He is laughing a wild, high, adolescent laugh, as Reed climbs off the mare.

"Keseberg, you idiot!"

Turning to the small circle of observers, with his hands thrown wide, Keseberg says, "Why is this man calling me a criminal?"

"You are a criminal! Dammit, man. If the Sioux come after us, you and I will be killed, our wives will be taken, our children too!"

He is shouting. His eyes are wide and fierce.

Someone calls out, "Hey Jim, what's got into you?"

"These are burial robes! But Keseberg thinks they belong to him!"

"Better him than the Indians," one fellow says.

"Haw haw," laughs another.

"I don't know," says a third. "Wouldn't mess with them Sioux."

"Me neither," says someone else. "Ain't worth no buffalo skins."

"I wouldn't mind pickin' off a brave or two," the first fellow says. "Whatta we got rifles for?"

"I think Jim is right. Maybe you'd pick off a few, but you wouldn't live to tell the story. Any way you look at it, we'd be outnumbered a hundred to one, and don't you think otherwise. It ain't worth it. I'd get rid a them hides right now."

A dozen more have joined the circle, and the commentary spreads into a noisy debate. Some envy Keseberg's trophies and are content to stand feasting their eyes on his handsome wife, imagining how she will look inside the wagon relaxing on these soft, seductive robes. Others grasp the full weight of this predicament, among them George Donner, an elder in the party, with the look of a patriarch, his face wide, his jaw firm, his hair silver. Though often regarded as a leader, he lacks Jim's eagerness to take command.

Donner listens a while, then looks at Keseberg. Quietly he says, "Jim is right. You ought to do what he says, Lewis, and the sooner the better."

Now Keseberg cannot look at his wife, who has been mystified by all the turmoil, her eyes darting wildly from voice to voice. She understands enough to fear that her new possession will soon be taken from her, and she clutches the robe to her chest. For the German this is very hard medicine, but he respects George Donner. "All right," he says. "All right. I will do it first thing in the morning."

Jim says, "We'd better do it now."

Keseberg puffs out his chest and begins to prance back and forth, slamming a fist into his palm, pop pop pop, as if he has been condemned to the firing squad and has now been denied his final request.

"And I'll go with you."

"I said I'd do it!" Keseberg cries. "My word is good!"

Jim says, "You'll need someone to hold your horse."

On the ride out, Keseberg refuses to speak. The sun is setting as they come upon the scaffold, about a mile from the wagons and near the bank of a small creek winding toward the Platte. There are other signs of recent encampment, ashes, close-cropped grass. The scaffold is made of four slender poles stuck into the earth, supporting a platform of woven branches lashed with thong. Laid out upon the platform are the remains of a chief. Feathers fall against his black hair. His shield and lance are with him. On the bare soil beneath the scaffold, bleached buffalo skulls are arranged in a circle.

As the two men sit on horseback regarding the corpse, the wind around them gradually falls off. Across the prairie Jim can see wind moving, but right here the nearest grass is still. The surface of the creek is slick and motionless. The sky is suddenly sprayed with crimson, while underneath its gaudy panorama, the space in front of them seems lit by some separate and brighter column of afterglow. On his arms the hairs rise. Under him he feels the mare tremble.

He instructs Keseberg to wrap the robes across the corpse exactly as he found them, to duplicate the look as closely as he can. As he watches, holding both sets of reins, the horses begin to twitch and rear, as if another animal is nearby. Jim squints toward a grove downstream, sees nothing.

All four are eager to get away from there, the men and the horses. As they lope toward the wagons, Keseberg still won't speak. At last Jim says, "Before we set out tomorrow I'll call a meeting of the council. I'm going to propose that you be expelled from the party."

He waits. When he hears no reply he turns and sees the blue eyes inspecting him with scorn.

"You have put the lives of everyone at risk. But we may be less at risk if you fall back. Do you understand my meaning?"

Keseberg's voice is low and harsh. "I have never been spoken to like this."

"Well, I am speaking to you like this. I know George Donner will support me. You can resist, if you choose, but I assure you that others on the council will agree. In this wagon party you are no longer welcome."

"You are going too far," says Keseberg.

"Maybe you'd rather leave tonight and avoid an embarrassment. It's your choice."

"I believe in discipline, Mr. Reed. But you have gone too far."

In a dramatic burst of horsemanship, Keseberg spurs ahead, kicking up a long plume of dust. Jim gives him plenty of room, lingering in the twilight, to let the dust plume settle, and let his own blood cool down.

a few more minutes pass. From the deep grass beyond the clearing, a Sioux brave sits up on his haunches and watches them ride away. He wears a buckskin tunic, arrows in a quiver. He creeps close enough to touch the robes and sniff around the edges. There is a faint white smell. Nothing has been cut or marked. He has never seen such a thing. If the Pawnee had stolen these robes, they would never bring them back. They steal for the insult. They scatter the skulls and throw the body down and defile it.

Who are these men? He could have killed them both and taken their scalps, first the one who held the horses, then the bright-haired one whose scalp would be highly prized. He could have gone back with the scalps and reported that he had found the thieves. But now they have returned the robes. Why? It is very strange. What kind of people would do this, take away the buffalo skins, then bring them back?

When he can no longer see the men, he stands for a long time listening. Voices come toward him on the wind, distant sounds of women and children. In the near-dark their fires light the sky. It is a village. A village of tents that move. All day he watched them passing along in their white tents. Between one rising and setting of the sun he has seen four villages of white tents, and many horses and many animals like the buffalo, with sharp horns, and men who drive the animals but do not shoot them, though some carry rifles. Are they warriors? They do not have the look of warriors.

Where do they come from? Where are they going?

From the Hardcover edition.
James D. Houston|Author Q&A

About James D. Houston

James D. Houston - Snow Mountain Passage

Photo © Jana Marcus

James D. Houston is the author of seven novels, including Continental Drift, Love Life, The Last Paradise—honored with a 1999 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation—and Snow Mountain Passage. His non-fiction works include Californians and Farewell to Manzanar, which he coauthored with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he has received the Humanities Prize, an NEA writing grant, and a Rockefeller Foundation residency. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

James Houston

author of

Snow Mountain Passage

Q: Your previous novels are all contemporary or set in the recent past. What made you choose to write about a historical subject?

A: Sometimes you don't choose the material; the material chooses you. The story of this novel is really the story of our house here in Santa Cruz, a steep-roofed Victorian a block back from the ocean. When we first moved in, in the early l960s, it had been empty for three years. It looked abandoned, a relic from a bygone era. And it was cheap. We were renters then, and that's what appealed to us. Only gradually did I learn that it was once inhabited by descendants of the fellow who co-organized the Donner Party, and that his younger daughter, Patty, who was eight when they rolled out of Springfield, Illinois, and had survived the cruel winter of l846-47, died in our bedroom back in l923. Over the years I became more and more intrigued with the idea this house somehow had a place in her family's legendary journey west.

Q: Many people left accounts and reports from 1846 and the great migration west. How did you use the historical record when writing Snow Mountain Passage?

A: It is almost overwhelming, the material available from this period. From the Donner Party survivors there are diaries, newspaper interviews, book-length memoirs, hundreds of letters. Sutter's Fort Museum alone holds a file of 650 documents donated by the Reed family. My intent, as I ploughed through it all, was not to re-tell the entire saga, but to keep the focus on one family. I looked for keys to how they saw themselves, saw others, how they reacted at certain moments, or failed to react. I wanted the main storyline to be historically accurate, in terms of dates, places, incidents. But I didn't want it to read like history. Fiction has to take us inside lives at another level. In Snow Mountain Passage there are two tracks. One follows James Frazier Reed, the father and husband, as he is separated from his own wagon party and from his family, and must cross into California before the snows, as his efforts to raise rescue parties collide with the politics and prophetic cross-cultural encounters at the end of the Mexican War. The other comes via the voice of Patty Reed in her 80s, from her porch here in Santa Cruz, reflecting back upon her family's legacy and her father's life.

Q: Throughout the book, you use what appear to be authentic trail notes written by Patty Reed, one of the surviving members of the Reed/Donner party. How did you achieve a sense of realism and authenticity when writing these imagined trail notes?

A: Osmosis has something to do with it, the things you absorb living in the house where Patty Reed spent the final years of her long life. Many features of the interior have not changed. Certain fixtures and pieces of furniture are still here. Also, I made several trips into the Sierras and out into the Nevada desert, re-visiting sites and along the way imagining how those places might have seemed to an eight-year-old from the midwest. When I finally sat down to try and find a way to tell the family's story, I began to hear her voice, as the elderly woman she'd been in the years she lived here. I wouldn't say it was an actual sound inside my head; rather, it was the distinct awareness of a certain way of speaking. And that was the day I began to write.

Q: Today, we fly across the country in five hours on luxury airlines but in 1846 traveling cross-country was an extremely difficult task. How did the emigrants travel and manage to transport their families across the country? What were traveling conditions like for the wagon trains?

A: The year l846 was the first year large numbers of families had tried to make this crossing. They had read guidebooks and heard the call of California from two thousand miles away. But many had no clear idea what they were getting themselves into, or how empty the world was once you crossed the Missouri. They had to imagine everything they'd need for a journey of four or five months, for sometimes four or five or six people - food, clothing, ammunition, pots and pans, spare parts - and they had to figure out a way to carry it all. Some planned well. Some not so well. It's hard now to imagine that kind of travel and the daily tasks they simply took for granted. If a wagon axle broke, you had to stop and carve a new one. To cross a river, you sometimes had to build a raft. To climb and cross what is now Donner Pass, in the central Sierra Nevada, you had to lead your oxen one at a time up a narrow trail, unload your wagon, then take it apart and haul the pieces up with block and tackle, then put the whole thing back together again.

Q: Looking back one can see instances where the wagon party made poor decisions and mistakes in planning and preparation. What do you believe was the turning point for the wagon party?

A: People have been debating this for l50 years. Part of the ongoing fascination with the Donner Party story is that there are no easy or clear-cut explanations for why things turned out as they did. At Little Sandy Creek, near South Pass in what is now Wyoming, a crucial decision was made to part from the main emigrant route north by way of Fort Hall and to follow an untested but hopefully time-saving route south of Great Salt Lake, the now-infamous Hastings Cut-off. In hindsight it is tempting to call this "a mistake." But at the time he recommended the shortcut, Lansford Hastings was regarded as the leading authority on westward travel and had authored the most influential guidebook for reaching California and Oregon.

Q: What was your most surprising discovery when researching the novel?

A: How the details of cannibalism have, from l847 until today, overshadowed
the more profound and emotionally moving dimensions of this story.

Q: The emigrants were stranded during one of the worst blizzards in the history of Sierra Nevada. What did they do to survive?

A: Though it was primitive, they had shelter. They had firewood. They had water (melted snow). When they eventually ran out of food, some but not all resorted to eating the flesh of those who'd died. This story has mythic power in large part as a testimony to what people are capable of when pushed to the extremes of human experience. Some become savages. Some become heroes.

Q: Snow Mountain Passage is a story not only about tragedy and misfortune but one of survival and endurance. Do you feel the latter gets lost or forgotten amid the tales of cannibalism?

A: Even as the survivors were making their way out of the mountains, in the spring of l847, exaggerated and sensationalized accounts had begun to appear in newspapers, to be reprinted around the world. In a way, the goriest details have helped to give this story its long life and make it the most notorious episode in the settling of the American west. To write about the Donner Party, one has to address this aspect of the tale; but I haven't dwelled on it in Snow Mountain Passage, in part because it has already had a big emphasis in other narratives, both fiction and nonfiction. Also, I believe the deeper story is in the family drama and ordeal - not only what happens at Donner Lake, as Margaret Reed and her four children struggle to survive; but what happens to James Reed during his months in Mexican California, trying to rejoin them.

Q: When something goes wrong, instinctively people want to place blame. In the case of the Reed/Donner party, was James Reed to blame? Can anyone be blamed for the wagon train’s misfortunes?

A: James Reed was a headstrong and willful man who made some decisions he later regretted. But so did they all. It was, for instance, a group decision to try the Hastings' Cut-off, not Reed's alone. They all voted on it. The farther you delve into the record and into the multiple accounts of what happened and why, the harder it is to single out any one person or family or decision. In the end it is a mysterious mix of unpredictable weather and bad luck and strange chemistry: a mismatched bunch of people who found themselves stuck with one another in unforgiving terrain. But there is no question that Reed contributed to the Party's misfortune. This in fact is what drew me to him, as a character. While his own pride makes him a culprit, he is also capable of a redeeming compassion and true courage.

Q: What is next on the horizon for you?

A: Another story. Another book. I'd rather not mention specific projects.
I have a nonfiction book in mind, a couple of ideas for novels. Whether
it's fiction or nonfiction or film, these are all forms for telling stories.
That's what I plan to keep on doing.

From the Hardcover edition.



"California was the Golden Land. The story of going there, to a paradise of orchards and gardens, is an American defining epic. Nobody has told it better than Jim Houston in Snow Mountain Passage. What a splendid novel."
--William Kittredge, author of The Nature of Generosity

"Snow Mountain Passage is not just a terrific read--full of incident, history, heartbreak, and actual heroism--it is also an elegant, beautifully wrought novel of great passion and love within a family. I don’t know a book like it. It's wonderful."--Richard Ford

"I have always loved Jim Houston's writing. I love Jim Houston. As always, Snow Mountain Passage breathes with his spirit of kindness and generosity." — Carolyn Kizer

"A vivid retelling of the Donner Party’s 1846 winter ordeal . . .This is one of the essential stories of the American westward movement, and seldom has it been told with such exemplary passion and pathos. Is there yet any doubt that the historical novel is alive and well once again? Houston has made another significant contribution to the genre's revival." —Kirkus Starred Review

"Haunting and immediate . . . reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability." -- Publishers Weekly Starred Review

"Snow Mountain Passage is a dazzling achievement. James D. Houston chronicles the American Experience like no other writer I know. With prose as honest and lyrical as the Sierras themselves, he weaves a story that is compelling, heart wrenching, and ultimately redemptive. And he does so with the fine eye of a true master." --Connie May Fowler

From the Hardcover edition.

  • Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston
  • December 18, 2007
  • Fiction - Historical
  • Knopf
  • $13.99
  • 9780307427823

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