|Virginia Reed and the Donner Party|
I’ve read many books about the Donner Party, but All We Left Behind has preyed on my mind like no other book about this tragic event. Told through young Virginia Reed’s point of view, it traces the trajectory of what begins as a hopeful journey to a promising new life but ends in disaster.
Virginia is twelve when the story opens in Springfield, Illinois the day the family is departing, along with the extended Donner family and others, setting out for Independence, where they plan to meet up with a larger wagon train, the Russell Company. The trip has been James Reed’s idea all along, and he’s the leader of this small group.
The first few weeks of the journey seem like an adventure until they reach Independence, Missouri, and learn Russell has gone on without them. James Reed misunderstood the meet-up date. This is the first time Virginia realizes that “Pa”, her adoptive father, can make mistakes. Despite his autocratic nature, she has idolized him, feeling he can do no wrong. The family is Methodist, and earlier, after she visited a Catholic church with a friend, he made it clear Catholicism was the wrong path. (Virginia has guiltily been hiding the rosary the friend gave her in her pocket.) Now, she wonders if Pa can be mistaken about Catholicism, too.
This is only the first mistake James Reed will make. They meet up with Russell, but later split up, the larger wagon train taking the tried and true path; the Reed and Donner group and a few others taking the Lansing cut-off, a supposed shortcut that will make up for lost time. Reed has misplaced faith in the book by Langford Hastings, but he is a leader type with the ability to persuade, and this leads to one stubborn mistake after another. Reed is also a proud man, traveling with his family in the largest wagon with the most luxurious contents (dubbed later, by resentful fellow travelers, as “the palace car.”)
Before the trip is over, the car’s contents will join the many things “left behind”. Virginia's grandmother dies on the the trail. Another old man is abandoned by one of the other pioneers. All along the way, they encounter household goods, wagon wheels, relics of earlier pioneers who had to leave so much of what they valued behind.
One of the strengths of the author’s writing is the way she shows Reed through Virginia’s eyes: a man of flaws and redeeming virtues. Virginia’s hero worship wavers, but her loyalty never does. In the space of a little over a year, she matures from a pre-teenager torn between homesickness and adventure to a young woman with knowledge far beyond her years.
The author’s setting details plunge a reader deeply into the experiences of these hapless travelers. She has clearly has done extensive research that shows in the authority of her storytelling without ever intruding as "information dump". One of the most haunting scenes is when the Reed family and their three wagons are crossing the Great Salt Desert. They are crossing alone, because the heaviness of the “palace car” has slowed them down and the others have gone ahead. Patty, Virginia’s younger sister spies three wagons in the distance.
“I wonder why they’re so far off the trail,” Mama said. She added in a puzzled tone, “Their lead wagon looks nearly as big as our palace car.”
I waved just as the girl beside a pony waved back. Milt waved both arms over his head in unison with a rider in the other wagon company.
“They’re our mirror images,” he said wonderingly. “Even the horses are identical.”
A slow chill ran down my spine. “You mean they’re us?”
“Don’t look. Don’t look!” Mama’s voice trembled. “They aren’t
real. They’re a mirage.”
The Reeds join up with the others, but before long, things worsen as tempers and egos flair – as of course they would among a group of travelers who once had high hopes but have to deal instead with unforeseen difficulties that terrify them.
As a reader I found myself experiencing so many emotions -- tension, relief, humor, sympathy, even tears – as the writing pulled me deeper and deeper into Virginia’s world. While the story of the Donner party itself is remarkable, the author’s telling of Virginia’s story is equally remarkable. This is a book that bears more than one reading and should have a place in school libraries, both middle school and high school.
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