David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
The Donner Party. By George Keithley. New York: George Braziller, 1972. 254 pages. $6.50.
Reviewed by Thomas F. Andrews, Associate Professor of History at Azusa Pacific College. Dr. Andrews has presented papers on Western America at professional conferences, and his published articles on various aspects of overland travel to California have appeared in the Western Historical Quarterly, Princeton University Library Chronicle, Pacific Historical Review, and California Historical Quarterly.
In the nearly one hundred years since Charles F. McGlashan first published his work on the Donner tragedy, the story of that party’s struggle to complete their two-thousand-mile journey to California has been a recurring theme in Western American literature. From Virginia Murphy Reed to Eliza P. Donner Houghton to George R. Stewart, Walter M. Stookey, and Dale L. Morgan, scholar, buff, and participant have joined forces in preserving one of the American West’s most dramatic episodes. To this ever-growing shelf of Donner materials may be added George Keithley’s poetic narrative of the Donner Party’s 1846 overland trek.
Keithley has produced a work that is more narrative prose than poetry. He has arranged his “poem” in three line stanzas which are unrhymed, irregular in rhythm, and uneven in quality. Moreover, his lines lack the elevated tone and the complex imagery one might have desired in an “epic poem.” At the same time, however, Keithley’s use of three line stanzas rather than paragraphs for his narrative prose enables him to produce the highly visual images necessary to convey the intensity of the story. This he does effectively and with great success.
The author has admittedly taken some liberties with the facts, but perhaps no more than some of the other writers, scholar and novelist alike. Generally, he has been faithful to what “likely could have happened,” and his characters have assumed “their own existance. [sic]” One need not ask more of a poetic narrative, though this historian is tempted to conclude with the words of Frederick Jackson Turner to Archer B. Hulbert concerning the latter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Forty-Niners: “The combination of fiction and history, even in skillful hands like yours, finds me somewhat unconvinced.”