Review of The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party
by Allan Wolf
Middle School, High School    Candlewick    416 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-7636-6324-7    $21.99

As in his previous works of historical fiction, including The Watch That Ends the Night (rev. 9/11), Wolf here deploys a cast of characters (a few not human) to provide a fictionalized account of a major event from the past, grounded in thorough research. He describes his storytelling style as “narrative pointillism”: “Each point has its own unique perspective. And only by stepping back to consider all the points together will the picture or story become complete.” Six sections, each covering roughly a two-month span of time, faithfully track the ill-fated titular expedition from optimistic start to tragic end. Various participants relate events in (mostly) free verse; each bringing his or her (or its) own viewpoint to bear. These characters serve as guides, from eight-year-old Patty Breen with her child’s-eye view, to George Donner’s erudite and resourceful wife, to two converted Miwok vaqueros dispatched from Fort Sutter to assist the party — only to end up being killed and eaten. Ever-present Hunger, “The Narrator,” appears throughout in prose sections to clarify plot points, offer philosophical reflections, and reframe characters’ motivations. Careful attention to detail, skillful character development, and expert pacing prevent this ambitious undertaking from buckling under its vast scope. The forty pages of back matter are essential reading as well. Wolf documents his extensive research; among the appended material are profiles of selected characters, a section on “Native Americans and the Donner Party,” a timeline, insight into what’s real and what’s not, and a lengthy recommended reading list. Two maps not seen.

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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