I am a first round CYBILS poetry judge. We have read almost forty books, about half of which are novels in verse. We'll make our selections in the next week, then send five to seven books on to the second round judges.
Yesterday, I read TO STAY ALIVE: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party, by Skila Brown. TO STAY ALIVE tells the story of the Donner Party, a group of 87 people that left Illinois, headed for California, in Spring, 1846. The story is told from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, a 19-year-old woman, who is with her family (mother, father, older sister, brother-in-law, seven younger brothers and sisters, and a hired hand.
The trip starts out with great promise.
The travel dress
thick and crisp and green,
white buttons in a line,
a bright stiff collar, perched high.
It's a dress for an adventure,
a dress ready for
whatever it will face.
Strongly stitched, unspoiled, new,
It is meant to endure.
The trip is not easy, however, and becomes deadly when the family elects to take a shortcut.
We'll take a shortcut, pass south
under Salt Lake," Father says
that night around the fire. "Plenty of time
to cross the Sierra Nevada before
the end of fall."
Mother asks, "Who else is going?"
Father swats at a fly, replies, "No one
from here. They'll all be going north.
But there's a group ahead. If we leave tomorrow,
we should be able to catch up."
Mother doesn't answer, but I do.
"It's a good plan," I say. "The sooner, the better."
Mother gives me a strange look, but Father only smiles.
"Had enough of this adventure, have you?"
"This isn't an adventure," I say.
"It's a journey of monotony and dust and sore feet."
Father laughs and laughs.
I say, "I'm ready for California.
To be at the foot of those mountains.
That's when the adventure,
truly will begin."
Father doesn't say anything.
His smile lingers
even though his laugh
The shortcut proves much more difficult than the party had planned. Food and water run short. People begin to argue among themselves. The weather turns cold, and then it begins to snow.
The wind will not stop
breathing down hard upon us,
trying to turn us aside,
push us back down the mountain
with its cutting breath.
It breathes right through
my dress-- once too stiff,
thick for summer's heat now--
too thin, not enough.
It roars and moans,
picks up snow from the ground,
spits it in my face,
trying to get our attention,
but we tuck down our chins,
squeeze tight our eyes,
vow it will not be heard.
Ultimately, the party is forced to take shelter in some makeshift cabins, and then send forth a few members on snowshoes, made out of oxen's yoke, to look for help. Ultimately, less than half of the Donner party actually makes it to California. Back matter includes a map, a list of party members, and an epilogue.
A riveting read about the choices humans make when faced with survival.
If you want to know more about the Donner party, you could start by reading the Wikipedia entry.
Buffy Silverman is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup this week.