Lost & Found: Rebecca Makkai on George R. Stewart

Rebecca Makkai

I find it hard not to narrate my life in the ominous voice of the Dateline: Real Life Mysteries host. You know: “She stopped at the store for what she thought would be milk . . .” That man has mastered the peculiar blend of empathy and scorn that can come only from hindsight. We know that the poor sap shouldn’t open that motel room door solely because we’ve seen the photos of his bones. And we get this, and the narrator gets this, but we still shake our heads at the guy’s naïveté, if only because it makes us, for a few seconds, invincible. Nothing like that will happen to us, because we see the world in omniscient third.

To George R. Stewart’s credit, this tone of dramatic irony is utterly absent from Ordeal by Hunger, his authoritative 1936 nonfiction account of the Donner Party. And that is precisely what makes the book terrifying.

Stewart, the polymath author of over thirty books, is not remembered enough. His best-known book is the postapocalyptic novel Earth Abides, and one of his stranger legacies is that his 1941 novel, Storm, gave rise to the tradition of naming tropical storms and hurricanes. Ordeal by Hunger is still in print, and still has an audience—though one suspects many readers are (like I was) brought in more by the subject matter than by Stewart’s name as an etymologist and ecological writer, or his scholarly work at UC Berkeley on the poetic meter of ballads.

I picked the book up expecting horror, of course. I remembered the thirty seconds I’d caught of some Donner-related PBS documentary when I was ten. I knew there would be organ meat involved. How alarming, then, to empathize with these people so fully, to understand their desperation so completely, that by the time they consider eating each other, I was rooting for it.

Of all the decisions the eighty-seven travelers made, the one we can pinpoint as fatal was their straying from the established Oregon Trail to follow the newly blazed shortcut of an adventurer named Hastings. In Stewart’s narration, we know this is the wrong choice—the chapter heading, for Christ’s sake, is “The Trap Clicks Behind”—but he takes pains to justify their reasoning. I did not come out convinced that I’d have made a different call.

In a chapter called “Causes,” Stewart chastises those historians who would make themselves feel safe by blaming the Donner Party for its own fate: “I have found widely spread a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves, to consider that they . . . were a pig-headed, ignorant lot who thought they knew more about matters than other people did and who . . . brought upon themselves pretty much what they deserved.” In fact, he implies, the truly hubristic ones are those other historians, and us. We imagine ourselves savvier simply because we were born in a more enlightened age. This is how we can laugh at Columbus, roll our eyes at medicinal leeches, judge the Titanic crew. We would never be so foolish, we who ignore melting glaciers, we who Frankenstein our crops.

Stewart’s refusal to condemn the bad decisions makes it easier for us to recognize the myriad good ones. There was the traveler who, dimly recalling his Vermont childhood, reinvented snowshoes. There was the sacrifice of a man named Reed, who’d ridden ahead in exile but risked his life to return and gather survivors.

And then there’s the worst brand of decision, the one Stewart’s fair-handedness has primed us to internalize: the ostensibly good choices that actually make things worse. Tamsen Donner dresses her three young daughters in their finest clothes, combs their hair, and sends them off with two early rescuers. The rescuers carry them only a little way before abandoning the girls at the other part of the camp—still stranded, but now away from their mother.

I encountered this book when my oldest daughter was an infant and so couldn’t help reading it as the World’s Most Horrifying Parenting Guide. That moment with the Donner girls confirmed something that What to Expect the First Year had not acknowledged: as a parent, you’re going to make horrible decisions—fatal decisions, even—that look wise at the time. That are wise, except for their ruining everything. You’ll accept a fabulous job in a town where your daughter has an idyllic childhood before meeting the wrong boy in high school, the one who will wreck her life. And how could you have known to choose differently?

Memory is inextricably bound up with hindsight—perhaps because the evolutionary reason we remember anything at all is so we can avoid our past mistakes. (Eat the red berries, not the purple ones. Don’t go into the cave where Grothgrad got eaten.) Learning from our mistakes is natural. Learning from others’ mistakes is natural too, even when we slip into judgment or schadenfreude. But the inverse of hindsight—doubting every decision because we anticipate the future regret of that decision—seems less helpful and more postmodern, the kind of thing we invent medications for.

When I was halfway through the book, I flipped out at my husband. It was December 23, midnight, snowing hard. In the morning we were flying to Connecticut, but he’d just learned that the roads to O’Hare might be closing. He wanted me to make the call, right then: should we drive to the airport now and camp there till morning or chance things at 9:00 am? He couldn’t have picked a worse time to ask me to decide about travel, snow, safety, and my child. I may have overreacted a tiny bit. (Okay, I screamed.)

Another of Stewart’s strengths is the gratifying weight he gives his account of the Donner Party aftermath. In the last chapters we see the survivors farming in California, plagued by notoriety. A supplement to the 1960 edition of Ordeal by Hunger includes a letter from young Virginia Reed to her cousin just weeks after her family reached safety. It extols the virtues of the California climate and includes this advice: “Don’t let this letter dish[e]a[r]ten anybody never take no cutoffs and hury along as fast as you can.” Because Stewart allows us now to situate ourselves weeks and years later, to look back not just with hindsight but with the knowledge of what will happen next, everything that came before seems inevitable—or at least beyond second-guessing. This isn’t just the story of a disaster, but of how more than forty survivors got, improbably, to California, of how their lives were changed. Of how some of their descendants still live there today.

And who’s to say the Donner Party didn’t make the best possible choice after all? Even those who live to tell the tragic tale, even those who write the history books, don’t know what lay at the end of the other route. Tamsen Donner didn’t make it out alive, but—after all that betrayal, all those misguided decisions—her daughters did.

Near the end of the book, Stewart considers that first fork in the trail and offers this: “How did the emigrants arrive at this decision? They gathered first all information available about the two possible routes; then on the basis of this information they acted. No man can do more upon a similar occasion.”

And perhaps this narrative forgiveness is why I love the book, and why I ultimately find Stewart’s account less a warning than an absolution, a benediction: You choose your trail. The trap clicks behind. You forge on.

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers (forthcoming 6/18), The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the collection Music for Wartime–four stories from which appeared in The Best American Short Stories. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca has taught at the Tin House Writers’ Conference and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently on the faculty of the MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is the artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.