Summary and book reviews of Snow Mountain Passage by James Houston

Snow Mountain Passage

by James Houston

Snow Mountain Passage
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2002, 336 pages

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Book Summary

A powerful retelling of one of the USA's most dramatic pioneer stories--the ordeal of the Donner Party, with its cast of young and old risking all, its imprisoning snows, its rumors of cannibalism.

Snow Mountain Passage is a powerful retelling of one of the USA's most dramatic 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.

An extraordinary tale of pride and redemption. What happens--who dies, who survives, and why--is brilliantly, grippingly told.

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....

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Washington Post Book World - Carolyn See

James D. Houston has always worked from a unique vision of how the times we live in shape ourselves. Farewell to Manzanar (written with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston) and Continental Drift are sterling examples of this. But Snow Mountain Passage is in a class by itself. The novel takes one of the most ghoulish, garish parts of our national myth and transforms it into a dignified, powerful narrative of our shared American destiny.

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Starred Review. Haunting and immediate . . . reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability.

Kirkus

Starred Review. 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.

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Starred Review. Haunting and immediate . . . reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability.

Author Blurb Carolyn Kizer
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.

Author Blurb Connie May Fowler
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.

Author Blurb Connie May Fowler
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.

Reader Reviews

Dylan Hensley

This book was a great retelling story of the Donner Party of 1846. I read it for a book report, and i have to say it was one of my favorite books I've donea report on.

Marcus

It was a good book.

Peter Boffey

The dynamics peculiar to this period of intense social and political upheavels in what we now call Northern California had never, in my experience, been brought to life in such a communicative fashion. Reading SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE, I finally felt as...   Read More

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