Review of To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

brown_to-stay-alivestar2 To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
by Skila Brown
Middle School, High School    Candlewick    292 pp.
10/16    978-0-7636-7811-1    $17.99

In this compelling verse novel, Brown (Caminar, rev. 3/14) imagines the Donner Party’s harrowing survival tale as experienced by nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves, a real-life member of the expedition. Brown’s depiction of Mary Ann is drawn from historical accounts; she comes across as pragmatic, unsentimental, and ready for adventure. When her family begins its journey from Illinois to California in April 1846, Mary Ann is energized by her father’s visions of California’s “fertility of soil, infinity of spring.” Effectively varying meter, rhythm, and form, the poems offer a vivid and gritty portrait of life on the trail — the dust, temperature extremes, dangers, challenges — and, for Mary Ann, a liberating sense of freedom and possibility within the period’s gender confines. Brown includes a couple of intriguing if short-lived romantic threads; Mary Ann’s plainspoken awkwardness adds another facet to her character. Readers unfamiliar with the Donner Party’s doomed outcome will be on equal footing with the protagonist; for those with a sense of what lies ahead, subtle foreshadowing contributes a dark undercurrent to the narrative. The poems concerning starvation and cannibalism deliver the how-to basics with somber precision, providing just enough detail to evoke the horror before moving on to other ordeals still to beset the survivors. A helpful map precedes the tale, and fascinating back matter (including a photograph of Mary Ann taken thirty years after the book’s events) fills in historical details and separates fact from fiction. A nuanced and haunting portrayal of the indomitable human spirit.

From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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