A novel-in-verse about the infamous Donner Party of 1846, To Stay Alive by Skila Brown is a chilling, poetic retelling of one of America’s most tragically horrifying moments in history.
Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846.
The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, maybe some romance, better opportunities for all. But when winter comes early to the Sierra Nevada and their group gets a late start, the Graves family, traveling alongside the Donner and Reed parties, must endure one of the most harrowing and storied journeys in American history. Amid the pain of loss and the constant threat of death from starvation or cold, Mary Ann’s is a narrative, told beautifully in verse, of a girl learning what it means to be part of a family, to make sacrifices for those we love, and above all to persevere.
Here’s what I took away from this fictionalized take on American history:
1. An “inside” peek on an already fascinating story. It’s weird to think that I was only in 4th grade when I first learned about the Donner Party; that seems so young to be learning about something so horrific. But that was the year we covered the settlement of the west; the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and the infamous Donner Party. I remember the heebie jeebies I felt the first time I learned how the Donner Party survived that tragic winter, trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I think a small part of me has been obsessed with the story ever since; but then, haven’t we all? Isn’t our twisted fascination with how they survived part of what makes the story of the Donner Party such an iconic moment in U.S. history? Brown really captures that fascination here, and uses Mary Ann Graves as her narrator to give us an “insiders” look at the story.
2.Poetic insight. Through Mary Ann, Brown gives a human voice and perspective to the tragedy. Through her poetic writing, Brown immerses readers into the story – so we can feel the burden of the journey west; the tug-of-war between hopes and fears and certainty and dreams of something better. Mary Ann gives us a unique perspective on this moment in history. Beyond the story we know from history, we are immersed into Mary Ann’s hopes for romance, her relationship with her siblings and her parents, and her dreams of a better life.
3. A bold, brave female character. Throughout every horrifying turn of their journey, Mary Ann exhibits an unshakeable determination to persevere. She’s not like her other sisters, and though this makes her a bit of an anomaly in her time, it’s also a large part of the reason she survives. She’s a fighter, and the fact that her story is based in truth makes her story all the more incredible.
Beautifully written and carefully researched, To Stay Alive is a really stunning peek inside one of American history’s greatest (and most horrifying) tragedies. The book is in stores now.