What I read:
The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis
496 pages / History / 4 out of 5 yoked pair of oxen
How it starts:
The Donner and Reed families team up to travel from Illinois to Utah on the overland trail in 1846, the year before the first Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley. They team up with other families as traveling companions. They hope to settle in Northern California and create a better life for their families.
How it gets complicated:
The party is slowed down at every turn. Instead of taking the Oregon Trail through current day Wyoming, they take a short cut (they called it a “cutoff”) through what is now Utah. Only one group has tried going this way before, but it was a much smaller group than the Donner-Reed Party. Unprepared and moving too slow, the party, looses valuable time trying to blaze a trail through the Wasatch Mountains. Then they nearly die of thirst trying to cross the desert west of the Great Salt Lake. By the time they reach the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Nevada and California, it’s beginning to snow. Unable to cross the summit of the mountains and getting hammered by storm after storm in one of the worst winters ever recorded in those mountains, the party is forced to make camp for the winter at Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake). When it becomes clear that they don’t have enough food to make it through the winter, and that the game is too scarce to survive by hunting, the party resorts to eating their friends and family as they drop dead from exhaustion and dehydration, hoping this will help them hold out long enough to enter California in the spring.
What I liked:
I liked how the author arranged historical events to give the book a narrative feel. Some histories can be difficult to get through quickly, by this author told the story well enough that it almost felt like reading a novel. I also liked that his historical sources were well-documented in the notes, so it was easy to see where he was getting his information. An added perk was that I was about to visit Donner Lake with my family on our way to visit the Redwoods of Northern California. We camped there for the night and got to see the monument erected to the families trapped at Donner Lake. The monument that the statues stand on is 22 feet high, which is how deep the snow got when the Donners were camped there.
What I disliked:
I can’t think of anything that I disliked about this book. It was pretty cool!
Although I found this to be an incredibly interesting book, it is a history, and those tend to move a little slower than most other books. If you want to dig through the historical details and enjoy reading through a lot of research, you’ll have no problem with this book, but it does not read like a young adult novel.
No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers
360 pages / Memoir and Social Issues / 4 out of 5 stars
Ron Powers writes about his experiences with mental illness in his family. Both of his sons became schizophrenic in their late teens and early twenties. He uses their experiences as a framework to examine the history of treatment for the mentally ill, the deinstitutionalization of American long-term psychiatric care, and the resulting increase in homelessness and incarceration of people with mental illnesses.
I thought this book was powerful. Powers makes a good case for the need to increase long-term institutional care for psychiatric patients, but I also think there are some pretty big holes in his argument that he fails to address. He manages to stir up some strong reactions in the comments section.
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
203 pages / Nonfiction / 4 out of 5 stars
This book is the true story of a man who lived alone in a camp in the woods for nearly 30 years. He survives there by stealing from vacation homes and cabins near his camp. After stealing from a summer camp kitchen for several years he is finally caught and arrested. He eventually, and reluctantly share some of his story with a writer, Micheal Finkel, who shares it in this book.
I enjoyed reading this book. I was pretty stressed out when I read it and the idea of retreating into the woods and living a life of solitude as looking pretty appealing until I did a little more research and decided that Christopher Knight, the hermit in this story, is kind of a weasel man. The book itself was pretty interesting, though.