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Book Review

Pioneers' Cruel Fate Still Brings On Chills

SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE by James D. Houston. Alfred A. Knopf $24, 304 pages

April 06, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even after the passage of a century and a half, the story of the first great emigration from the Eastern states to California still exerts a powerful magnetic pull upon the imagination and the heart.

In the middle and late 1840s, before the Gold Rush or statehood, a portion of the American people surged West as they never had. It was a trickle, then a stream, and then a great flow as the emigrants threw themselves across the Rockies at South Pass in what is now Wyoming, across the Great Basin and northwest into Oregon or southwest into California.

Now James D. Houston, author of seven novels, including "Continental Drift" and, with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, of "Farewell to Manzanar," has turned again in a novel to reach back and bring us that long-gone past, with all its human turmoil and complexity.

For the California-bound, the last great obstacle--after the Nevada desert--was the "Range of Light," the Sierra Nevada. Crossing it was never easy. Even before the winter snows came, the wagons had to be dismantled, their burdens unloaded and all lifted by winch across Emigrant Gap, the daunting height and sheerness of which can still be seen just off Interstate 80 in the mountains.

When the snow came, it fell by the foot, by the yard, 25 feet deep and more, burying unfortunate travelers who started out late, as well as their makeshift shelters,. In the late fall of 1846 that is what happened to the Donner Party, the group of 87 men, women and children who, enticed by a reckless enthusiast from the well-trod path into an untried shortcut, fell victim to winter and human weakness. "Snow Mountain Passage" is a remarkably successful re-creation of the Donner Party's ordeal.

Over the winter many died. Some of their survivors ate the bodies. Some, perhaps, killed others for food. By the next spring only 47 were rescued. The news of the Donner Party spread its horror throughout California at the time. During the last 150 years, the fascination has barely diminished. George R. Stewart's classic study of the event in his 1936 "Ordeal by Hunger" is only one of several narratives. And in "Snow Mountain Passage," except for a handful of cliched characters--two noble savages and a nasty, squirrel-eyed white man--Houston's people ring true.

Houston's vehicles are the authentically wrought Jim Reed, separated from his family and the other emigrants by a tumult of hot temper; and Patty, Jim's daughter, who, 8 at the time of the ordeal, reminiscences in her 80s, as she stares at the sea from her home in Santa Cruz.

Especially fine is the subtle and convincing way Houston weaves the sensibility of the strong-minded and independent Jim Reed with his equally well-drawn wife, Margaret, whose own strong will is not compromised in this novel by her situation as a woman in 19th century America. A number of contemporary American male writers, whose literary sights are set ostentatiously higher than Houston's historical novel, do not come close to his delicacy and insight in the treatment of his female characters, from Margaret Reed to Patty. In this, Houston is in the cleareyed, sympathetic mode of Wallace Stegner.

"Snow Mountain Passage" switches from the horror of the camp in the mountains to the enchanting potential of life in California that Jim encounters as he wanders the northern part of the state, waiting to attempt the mountain rescue. Houston evokes the endless possibilities of life there, from the richness of the land to the abundance of game to the hard glint of the light on the ocean.

"Snow Mountain Passage" is a moving, persuasive, imaginative account of how people behaved, well and meanly, when swept up in a great movement that pulled at them like a huge, relentless magnet to realize the ultimate American dream, despite the dangers.

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