I say, "Donner Party," and we all know what you think, right? Reading or writing about the infamous settlers and their harrowing five months caught in the snow is bound to entail a certain amount of gut-wrenching horror, and James D. Houston's Snow Mountain Passage is no exception. But we are in the hands of a very capable author, and this story is about far more than the inhumanity those settlers had to resort to. Houston makes the wise narrative choice of focusing on one of the fathers and co-organizers of the party, exiled early in the trek and thus spared from the trap set by massive blizzards and a high mountain pass. Instead, James Frazier Reed is on the other side of those mountains trying to find a way to rescue his family and the eighty others snowbound with them.
It is 1846 and California is still contested, its people caught in the back-and-forth between Mexico and the United States. War threatens, impunity reigns, and it's unclear who even has the right to grant the land the settlers came to occupy. In the midst of all this are, of course, the native inhabitants, watching warily. Our hero, James Reed stumbles into this chaotic world with one mission, to save the wagon party he knows to be caught behind the Sierra Nevada ("snowy mountains"). But this is a story about what makes us human, our errors and all, and the path to rescue is circuitous - whether necessarily so or not.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book is its depiction of a people and a land in total flux. We often talk today about how rapidly change occurs, but at least we in the United States know, generally, who owns the land we walk on, what state it falls in, and what country governs it. We can see, more or less, how the future will unfold. This was not the case for the settlers in mid-19th century California. One of Houston's characters is Captain Sutter, an entreprenuerial Swiss who set himself up as ruler of a tiny corner of California. But that success is slipping away: "The future is crowding him ... What next? There was a time when he thought he knew. These days who can know anything, with the world transforming itself at such a pace. He grows weary of these unforeseeable changes."
Whether it's being caught in a succession of blizzards or drawn off to war against the Mexicans, this book is about unforeseeable changes. I think we can relate.
(For those interested in the author's take on his subject and some fascinating historical background -- visit here.)