Middle Grade Review: Stay Alive: The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds, The Donner Party Expedition, 1846 (My Name Is America) (Rodman Philbrick)



About This Book:

“Soon we will eat the frozen cattle…. And then, when that is gone, what shall we eat?

Shall we eat the snow? Shall we eat the ice? Shall we eat the bark on the frozen trees?

What shall we eat?”

Spring, 1846: Douglas Allen Deeds dreams of starting a new life out West. When the opportunity to join the Donner Party Expedition arises, he leaves the life he’s known behind to set out on the nearly 2,000-mile trek from Independence, Missouri to sunny California.

But progress is slow. Brutal heat, poisoned water, and rough terrain slow them down. Soon they have a choice: continue on the known but grueling trail, or take a shortcut that would cut 350 miles from their journey-but take them through unknown territory. Is it worth the risk?

Winter comes quickly in the mountains, and the wrong choice could leave them stranded in the Sierra Mountains when the snow comes, with no shelter, supplies, or food.


*Review Contributed by Karen Yingling, Staff Reviewer*

Much needed updated history
In Missouri, young teenager Douglas Deeds has lost his father and mother, and all he has left in the world in some money and his horse. He decides to join a group of people heading to California, where life promises to be easier. The Breen family, who have a son Edward about Douglas’ age, let Douglas accompany the family and share their supplies. The leader of the party, George Donner, has asked Douglas to keep a journal of the trip. The group heads out with lots of enthusiasm and well equipped wagons; the Reeds have one with a door, bed, and even bookshelves. Someone else has brought a piano. Since the rations needed for the months long trip include 150 pounds of flour per person and 75 pounds of meat, there are many animals pulling the wagons, and they need food as well. Things go fairly well, and the group crosses the South Platte river. As the journey continues, tempers begin to fray, bad decisions are made, and crises occur. The Great Salt Lake is long and arduous to cross, but it is the mountains that prove the group’s undoing. Winter closes in early in the mountains, and after the group abandons their wagons and supplies to get through a pass, things deteriotate further. Will Douglas be one of the survivors lucky enough to reach California?
Good Points
One of the books I can remember reading in fourth grade (almost fifty years ago!) was Mary Jane Carr’s 1934 Children of the Covered Wagon. Certainly, the view of Westward Expansion and pioneers has changed significantly in the intervening years, but the adventure and excitement is still part of US history and interesting to read about. There are several mentions of the Native Americans that are met during the journey. While there are some missed opportunities to insert modern sentiment about how wrong it was to encroach upon them, the exchanges are at least not problematically negative, and at least once there is an explanation that the warring behavior is a response to the atrocities visited upon the population by the settlers. To capture the experience of the Donner party, this is about the only reasonable way to go to tell the story, although some critics will still feel this is not enough.

Details of traveling distances through a landscape with no modern amenities will be eye opening to young readers who can’t get through the day without a drink of water or a wall outlet to charge their phone. Cooking over open fire, walking twenty miles a day, and suffering through extremes of weather will all be novel experiences for most readers. I did appreciate that the book just skimmed the surface of the most notable Donner party feature; the cannibalism. Deeds refuses to partake of his expedition mates, and the epilogue and notes at the end tell us more about what happened without getting into grisly details.

I just had a student ask for books about “the wild west”, and I had to tell him there wasn’t much. Aside from a few bookslike Gemeinhart’s Some Kind of Courage (2015) Rose’s Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine (2017) and Taylor’s Billy the Kid (2005), I’ve gotten rid of most of the books about settling the west because of the problematic depictions of Native characters. Stay Alive is a much needed, exciting title covering an important, though difficult, period of US history. I’d love to see more books like this.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*