Skila Brown’s verse novel To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party (Candlewick, 14 years and up) tells the gripping story of the Donner Party’s doomed 1846 expedition west to California. Brown’s narrator is based on an actual member of the group: nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves, who was traveling with her parents and siblings. Brown’s poems evoke the physical and mental challenges of the journey, the extremes of climate and geography, and the survival of the human spirit.
1. The Mary Ann Graves in your poems comes across as no-nonsense and ready for the adventure ahead, and your author’s note states that she’s a composite of your research and your imagination. Do you think the real Mary Ann would have recognized herself in your depiction?
SB: I love this question and will probably think about it for weeks to come. I wish I knew the answer. A wonderful librarian in California took the time to photocopy all the remaining letters we have that Mary Ann wrote about her ordeal. I was not surprised to find them virtually void of emotion, mostly factual, very straightforward and upfront about events. She spent most of her paper-space correcting the mistakes of the reporter who’d drafted up an account of the journey.
I want to believe she would feel honored that people are reading her story, that they would understand what she’d suffered, but I think it’s more likely that she’d feel irritated by all the details I got wrong. I’d dearly love to sit down with her and have her tell me what those were.
2. Your acknowledgements mention that you “retrace[d] the steps Mary Ann Graves took on her journey west.” What was that like?
SB: It was predictably amazing to see the river at Fort Laramie and to touch Independence Rock and, most of all, walk in the woods where her family spent the winter by the lake in Truckee. But it took me by surprise how emotional I felt walking around Lacon, Illinois, where her family lived before their journey, and sitting beside her grave in Visalia, California. I longed to linger in the cemetery. I wanted to sit under the tree by her marker and just be still and quiet and feel connected to her for more hours than I had time for. It was a really wonderful trip, something I’ll cherish and remember always.
3. What was your writing process? Did you map out the narrative and then write the poems or did the verse drive the storytelling? And when did you incorporate all that powerful foreshadowing?
SB: I draft poems by hand and out of order. The poems came to me individually at first, before I’d thought about the story or even decided to write a book at all. It wasn’t until I had a collection of them that I started to admit that maybe I was writing a new book.
Foreshadowing happens, I think, in my subconscious. I was reading about how the expedition members stretched out food over the winter and how empty their stomachs were — all that was in my head as I wrote about the wagons, for example, at the start of the journey. It seemed natural to compare the empty wagons to empty stomachs in that moment. I’m definitely someone who thinks about the ending of a book in every scene I write. Beginnings are hard for me! But endings I often write early on in the process.
4. You’ve written another intense verse novel, Caminar (Candlewick, 11–14 years)…and a tongue-in-cheeky nonfiction picture book about sharks, Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks (Candlewick, 5–8 years). How do your subjects find you?
SB: Oh, I like the way you put that! Because they really do seem to find me and not the other way around. I have a long list of fantastic story ideas I’ve dreamed up over the years, and sometimes I even start writing a few of them. But there’s nothing like, for example, stumbling upon a podcast about families journeying west and the horrific events that happened along the way, and finding myself first interested in, then curious about, and then quickly (and scarily!) obsessed with learning more. And knowing all the while that I wouldn’t be able to let this story idea go. That I was going to have to see it through all the way to the end, regardless of what happened. It’s such a strong tug; I no longer try to fight it.
5. The more horrific parts of the Donner Party’s ordeal come toward the end of the novel; those poems are brief and quietly compassionate. How did writing those pieces affect you?
SB: To be honest, I didn’t want to write about the cannibalism. I think it’s often sensationalized, and it was never the most intriguing part of the story to me. Nor did I think it was the most difficult thing that they experienced. But I knew I couldn’t skip over it. I wanted to tell that part with as few dramatics as I could.
Writing this novel was emotionally and physically very hard for me. While I was immersed in the research and filling up notebooks with poems, I’d often wander down into the kitchen to fix lunch for my children and open up the pantry and just stare. It felt so wrong to see how easy it was for me to feed them, while I was living with the reality of Mary Ann’s mother stuck in that cabin, herself starving, and watching her children get thinner and weaker, listening to them ask for more food. It was hard for me to eat during the winter when I began this book, and often hard to sleep. This one definitely took a lot of out of me. Survival stories are so difficult because we know the ending can never be happily-ever-after. As an author, I can only hope the reader walks away from this book feeling what I’ve felt — admiration for Mary Ann Graves and a shared sense of hope in the darkest of circumstances.
From the October 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.