Rodman Philbrick: I didn’t have to make it all up! Although my narrator is a fictional character, the events really happened exactly as I described them. There is so much historical information about the Donner tragedy that I wasn’t even tempted to improve on the reality.
RFA & EST: The Donner Party had many things that worked together to make the trip the tragedy it was from weather to terrain to hunger and human power struggles. But, in some ways, the main culprit seems to have been Lansford Warren Hastings and the book he authored. Would you tell us more about him? Why did he write the book? Did he have good intentions?
RP: Hastings deserves a novel of his own. He was many things: self-promoter, con-artist, politician, and travel writer. But the one thing he claimed to be — an expert on the way west — was the one thing he had no talent for. His intentions may have been good, but if I may say so, the road to the horror at Starvation Lake was paved with good intentions! The Donner Expedition’s belief in Hastings’ faulty information about a shorter route to California led them to their doom.
RFA & EST: Other than your main character, Douglas, who is your favorite character in the book? Why?
RP: I’d have to say Charles Stanton, who made it to safety and then at great peril to his life returned with supplies for the stranded party. They repaid his kindness by refusing to share food with him. Stanton responded by offering to lead a desperate snowshoe expedition that became known as the Forlorn Hope. He perished along the way. Stanton had the kind of quiet courage I admire.
RFA & EST: If your readers wanted to read more about the Donner Party Expedition, is there a book or two you would recommend?
RP: Survivor Virginia Reed, daughter of James Reed, published a short book called Across The Plains with the Donner Party. It isn’t always accurate but it makes good reading. I’d also suggest that curious readers try exploring the many Internet sources, as I did. Any search engine will give you dozens of interesting sites.
RFA & EST: James Reed is a character a reader remembers long after the journal is completed. If you had only two or three words to describe James what would those words be? Why?
RP: Reed was both stupidly arrogant and splendidly courageous. Arrogant because he was sure he was right even when he was obviously wrong, and courageous because he ultimately did manage to rescue his family.
RFA & EST: As a boy you were impressed with another true survival story — one that took place in Maine on Boone Island and also involved cannibalism. In researching the Donner Party’s similar brush with bitter cold, starvation, and death, what did you discover that surprised you most?
RP: What surprised me most about the Donner tragedy was that, given the terrible circumstances, how anyone survived at all.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Douglas’s journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
RP: Did you enjoy the story? Did it make you want to read more books? I hope the answer is ‘yes’ to both questions.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you would want your readers to take with them after reading The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds?
RP: I hope my readers come away with an appreciation of the difficulties faced by our incredibly brave ancestors, who risked everything to seek a better life, and managed to build the wonderful country we now enjoy.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.