Friday, December 23, 2016


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.

"New Dress"

It's finished.
     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,
     well made,
It is meant to endure.

The trip is not easy, however, and becomes deadly when the family elects to take a shortcut.

"That Night"
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
has died.

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"
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.


Buffy Silverman said...

Sounds like a riveting book. And what an education you must be getting as a reviewer for the Cybils! Thanks for taking it on--looking forward to reading the books you select.

Donna Smith said...

Such a sad story! The excerpts you have here are really well written. Thanks for sharing this and for visiting my site today.

Linda Mitchell said...

I have this on my list of must reads. I so enjoyed Skila Brown's Caminar. I've looked for her on social media to see if I can keep up with what she's working on. But, she seems quiet and dedicated and not prone to distraction.....which is good because I really want to see more books from her. Thanks for the review. I think it's an incredible story and the bit that makes it the most famous is not the part that we readers need....but the human-ness of what happens as stress levels increase and resources dwindle.

Jane @ said...

I love this blend of historical fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Verse novels seem uniquely suited to powerful, emotionally-charged stories, so I can really see this being an incredibly moving account! Perfect for readers who think that history is stuffy and boring, when really it's anything but!

Mary Lee said...

Pair this with the historical graphic novel THE DONNER DINNER PARTY by Nathan Hale. Same story, two unique formats!