In April of 1846‚ Sarah Graves was twenty-one and in love with a young man who played the violin. But she was torn. Her mother‚ father‚ and eight siblings were in the last stages of loading their possessions into three ox-drawn wagons‚ about to disappear over the western horizon forever. Sarah could not bear to see them go out of her life‚ and so days before the planned departure she married Jay Fosdick‚ the young man with the violin‚ and the two of them threw their lot in with the rest of Sarah's family. On April 12th they rolled out of the yard of their homestead in Marshall County‚ Illinois‚ bound for California. They were among the last emigrants of the season to leave for the West and they were late getting started‚ but as they traveled across the open plains Sarah and her husband were full of optimism about the life that lay ahead of them in California. On nights when it was Jay's turn to stand watch‚ Sarah would stay up with him all night. She would wrap herself in a blanket and lean against him and they would murmur in the dark about California. Then‚ when the rest of the camp was asleep‚ he would pull out his violin and serenade her softly under the star-spangled prairie sky. But as summer went on‚ the party fell further behind schedule‚ and on August 16th‚ in what is now Utah‚ trying desperately to make up time‚ Sarah's family overtook and joined a wagon train headed up by a man named George Donner.
After a series of increasingly devastating setbacks‚ Sarah and the other emigrants arrived at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the last day of October just as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. After a series of vain attempts to cross that pass‚ the party hastily improvised cabins and slaughtered what remained of their emaciated livestock. By early December the meat was gone and they were beginning to starve‚ reduced to eating the hides of their animals. Sarah's father‚ Franklin Graves‚ was a Vermonter and the only member of the party familiar with snowshoes. Under his instruction‚ fifteen sets of snowshoes were hastily constructed from oxbows and rawhide‚ and on December 15th‚ Sarah‚ her husband‚ her sister Mary‚ her father‚ and eleven other relatively young‚ healthy people set out for California on foot‚ hoping to get relief for the others. Over the next thirty-two days they endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors‚ culminating for Sarah on the night that she watched as her husband's heart was impaled on a stick and roasted over an open fire. When they were finally found‚ fed‚ and given shelter by Miwok Indians in the foothills of the Sierras‚ only seven of them were still alive-all five of the women but only two of the ten men.
In his second book‚ THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE‚ Daniel James Brown takes a new look at the the doomed Donner party through the point of view of Sarah Graves Fosdick‚ whose experience on the cross continental journey Brown paints along with interjections of relevant modern science-comparing Sarah's experiences to other calamities and human ordeals of survival against all odds. Full of suspense‚ this page turning narrative paints a portrait of Sarah's terror‚ and brings a fresh new perspective to this very dark page in American pioneering.