I first learned the Donner Party story as a teenager hiking over Donner Pass and their harrowing fight for survival has always stayed with me. So you can imagine how excited I was to read Ethan Rarick‘s Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West. Rarick provides an intimate portrait of the Donner Party and their unimaginable ordeal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were lucky enough to have radio host Dorian Devins interview Rarick and two clips from that interview appear below. Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more audio clips from Rarick’s interview.
“The Basic Story”[audio:the basic story.mp3]
(transcription after the jump.)
Rarick: When I started I knew the story in the way that most Americans do. They were trapped in the West, they eventually had to resort to cannibalism, some survived. But I didn’t really know the details and one thing I didn’t realize is how long the entrapment continued and how long the rescue efforts continued. In fact there were multiple rescue parties that came in and took people out and as the rescue parties came in the only way to get out, of course, was to walk out, you had to hike out. Obviously you couldn’t bring in a MedEvac helicopter the way we would today. And so there were constantly decisions being made, in effect triaging and deciding “well, this person can make it out, this person can’t, they’re gonna have to stay and wait for another party or they may just stay and die,” which certainly happened as well. And, those moments of division of families, people deciding which children will go and which will stay, or a husband or wife will go and one will stay, those are just incredibly gripping moments of the story to me.
Dorian: Was it difficult for you to read and/or write about the actual act of cannibalism?
Rarick: I must say that I don’t find the cannibalism to be morally difficult. It’s obviously not something one wants to think about. To me these people were doing exactly what they had to do. They had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. There were people who blamed them later, but looking back at it now, I can’t blame them. I think that that’s a logical thing to do. And I’ve thought about this and if I were in that circumstance I hope I would actually have the courage to do that if I had to. And if I had died, I’d hope that people would, if necessary, use my body so that they could live. I think it’s just a logical, practical thing. I don’t think they had any choice. And one of the interesting things I learned is that this was sort of the 19th century view of cannibalism. Cannibalism was, I don’t want to say common, but it was not unheard of amongst sailors in that era because sailors’ ships would sink and they would be out in lifeboats and they would be there for months and obviously there was no GPS, no radio, no way to rescue them. So they’d float around for months, and cannibalism was understood to be a necessary act of survival and usually there was no great shame or no great later condemnation attached to it. It was just seen as what people had to do, and as I wrote about it I came to see it in the same way. I don’t blame the members of the Donner party for resorting to cannibalism at all. In fact I think, in a lot of ways, it showed a lot of courage. It showed they were willing to do what they had to do to survive.