Non-Newbery: The Donner Dinner Party

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Because I work at a university whose primary focus is on education, the library has a substantial children’s book collection. I spotted Donner Dinner Party on the new books shelf and couldn’t resist. When I was in elementary school, I went through a history/ historical fiction phase, which included reading a LOT about the Donner Party.

Donner Dinner Party cover

This graphic novel is an entertaining addition to the fairly extensive literature on the Donner Party. The history is well researched and the writing entertaining but not overly gruesome. The narrator is Nathan Hale (the patriot, and a pun on the author, who shares the name). Hale tells the story of the Donner Party to his hangman and the British soldier guarding him. All interject at various points in the story.

For those unfamiliar with the history, the short version goes like this: Families leave the Midwest (mostly Illinois) bound for California. They make bad choices and end up way behind schedule. Most of the party gets trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. They resort to cannibalism. Rescue parties eventually get the survivors out. This is the portion of the story (the cannibalism) on which most books focus. However, Hale does an excellent job explaining how things got to be so bad, focusing on James Reed’s prideful errors and refusal to listen, as well as the internal rifts within the fairly fluid “Donner” Party.

The hangman provides great comic relief. He is completely unfazed by cannibalism (he himself participated when shipwrecked), but gets worked up over animal deaths, refusing to believe that Billy the pony starved to death after the Reed family left him to wander. The book even includes a panel drawn by the hangman, showing the lovely meadows in which Billy and the family dog ended up.

This is a great book to interest kids in history. The Donner Party has the appeal of goriness, but the book moves beyond shock value to capturing the challenges posed by the trip itself and the fracturing of group dynamics in which it results. Because of the graphic novel format, even relatively marginal readers can get something out of the book. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for an engaging non-fiction read.


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