To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party by Skila Brown was shortlisted for the poetry category of the 2016 Cybils. It is a novel-in-verse that chronicles the experiences of one of the actual members of the Donner party, the group of settlers who left their Midwestern homes for California in 1846. Their journey turned tragic when winter snows came early to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. What happened to them is the stuff of legends at best and nightmares at worst. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can read more about it here (if Wikipedia is your thing) or here (if you prefer the History Channel).
Skila Brown tells the story through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves, a nineteen year old woman and the next-oldest of nine children who make the trek with their parents (along with Mary Ann’s brother-in-law and a hired hand). Mary Ann is smart, tough, and independent. Brown’s poetry spells out the adventure and tragedy in an absolutely spellbinding way. Through it we understand Mary Ann’s nature, her refusal to “make nice” with the hired man just to acquire a husband, her kindred-spirit relationship with one of the young mothers on the trip, and the possibility of a budding romance with a genteel bachelor and fellow emigrant. Of course, it’s not all friendship and romance–there are bushels of hard work, deprivation, and eventually, horror, and Brown communicates all of this just as deftly. Using formatting and spacing to communicate mood, Brown fills out what might be an incomplete picture of survival into one with depth, emotion, and pins-and-needles suspense.
Choosing an excerpt to share isn’t easy because the poems themselves are so varied. This excerpt captures the mood as well as communicates the reality of the wagon train’s experience:
Nothing here to see
in this empty space
of land, only the tumbleweed moves,
blows around in groups and alone,
rootless, nothing keeping them together.
They are at the mercy of the wind.
Sometimes the only sound I hear
while I’m walking is the squeak, cry
of the wagon wheels, whining, Why,
why, why. (“Days,” 100)
[There is a line break before “Sometimes the only sound I hear,” but I cannot get my computer to cooperate to format it that way.]
And another excerpt from a poem entitled “This Party”:
I’ve clutched so many logs against my dress
its green can no longer be seen.
My sleeves are a shade of gray
born from hands dipped
in work. (51)
I was positively entranced by this story, partly because I knew what was coming but mostly because it is so compellingly written. However, I do not know that I would call this a children’s book. At the very least, it is a young adult novel, and even some teens might be a bit too squeamish (physically or emotionally) to read it. Eleven year old Louise did get hold of it and read it before I could stop her (and I’m not much on stopping my children, within reason, anyway), and she wasn’t traumatized by it. However, your mileage may vary. You know your children. The fact that it is based on history makes it perhaps even more difficult, but it could also inspire quite a few rabbit trails, and Brown provides a little more information in the author’s note and additional backmatter to flesh out (see what I did there? <grimace>) the story a bit more. If you love, like, or can even just tolerate novels-in-verse, read this one. Haunting is one word I’d use to describe it, and I’m pretty sure that it will still be with me when I pick my best books of 2017. Highly Recommended. (Candlewick, 2016)