To the Discussion Leader
“All I want for Christmas is not to die.” Fifteen-year-old Douglas Allen Deeds writes this journal entry as a member of the ill-fated Donner Party Expedition — lost, hungry, freezing, and desperate. In the tradition of The Swiss Family Robinson and Hatchet, celebrated author Rodman Philbrick brings to life the initial exuberance and final tragedy of the Donner Party wagon train bound from Missouri to the fertile fields of California.
In the very popular Freak the Mighty, Philbrick showed his ability to capture the attention of young readers and keep them enthusiastically turning the pages. That feat is repeated in The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds. In exciting journal entries, Philbrick brings his readers into the Donner Party wagon train and allows us to walk in their shoes. Dreams of a new life in California disappear when the members of the party choose to take a new route to California and get caught in mountain winter snows. With vivid words Philbrick paints portraits of paralyzing hunger, life-threatening cold, and the unnerving transformation of human beings into animals bent on staying alive.
Rodman Philbrick says, “One of the books that made a big impression on me as a young reader was Boone Island by Kenneth Roberts. It tells the true story of several men shipwrecked on an island within sight of the coast of Maine. The winter weather was bitter cold, they had little hope of being rescued, and at the point of death the survivors finally resorted to cannibalism.
The story of what happened to the Donner Party is, I think, similarly horrifying and yet fascinating. To me it symbolized all the excitement and danger of the Western Migration. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who wonders what I might do, faced with a similar dilemma in an extreme situation.”
“Ho to California! Our expedition is big and getting bigger. Two hundred wagons and more every day!.. Nobody has ever seen anything like the Donner expedition. It is two miles from the first wagon to the last and the ground shakes as we go by,” writes fifteen-year-old Douglas Deeds in the spring of 1846. Recently orphaned, Douglas has decided to join up with the wagon train organized by brothers Jacob and George Donner, heading from Independence, Missouri to California. Douglas is soon “adopted” by fellow travelers, the Breen family and becomes fast friends with their teenage son Edward. Another friend is Virginia Reed whose family is traveling in an elegant, two-story wagon known as the Pioneer Palace Car. It is May when the party starts out, and there’s plenty of time to make the nearly 2,000-mile trek to California and be over the mountains before the snows come. Besides, according to their official guidebook, Lansford W. Hastings’ The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, there is a wonderful short cut that will save them 350 miles on their journey. The wagon train crosses the Platte River and encounters huge herds of buffalo and several bands of Indians. The travelers celebrate Independence Day with speeches, music, and firecrackers. Everyone has “high hopes that we get where we’re going in one piece and then strike it rich!”
But, progress is slow with the wagon train making “no more than 15 miles on our best day.” The heat is intense, and poisoned water holes claim some of the oxen. The travelers look forward to reaching Fort Bridger where they can rest and replenish their supplies, and where Lansford Hastings himself will come and guide them through the “cut-off.” Fort Bridger turns out to be a rough settlement where everything costs ten times more that it should. To make matters worse, Hastings does not show up. Still, the party seems determined to follow the Hastings shortcut even though a mountain man warns them that they cannot drive their wagons across it. Tamsen Donner, wife of George, voices her opposition but is voted down. The party is still confident that Hastings will join them. When it turns out he won’t, their optimism fades. Douglas writes, “I’ve never seen a party so discouraged. The blackness of this canyon has seeped into our hearts and stolen away our hopes.”
Now, the party must chop and cut their way through the blocked up canyons. Finally, they reach the Great Salt Lake, only to find there’s no drinking water, and it will take days to cross the barren salt flats. When they reach the mountains, snow has fallen, and they must keep moving. Indians steal their horses and cattle. Tempers flare. James Reed kills a man and is banished from the group. The arrival of Charles Stanton from California with fresh food and mules encourages the group until they try to move on and are stopped by deep snow and no trail to follow. They must camp by a frozen lake, which is dubbed Starvation Lake. Food supplies dwindle and Douglas worries about what they’ll find to eat. He writes,“ Soon we will eat the skinny cattle, and scrape what little meat we can from their skinny bones. And then, when that is gone, what shall we eat?”
Escape from this place is a must, and the party fashions snowshoes and attempts to hike out. They call themselves The Forlorn Hope. The cold and hunger proves too much for their guide Mr. Stanton, who dies. The party struggles on, but without food they turn to savagery. When three more travelers die, the others do not bury them, saying they might prove useful. Douglas writes, “My whole body screamed for food, but the horror of what they were about to do made me run away. I ran away out of fear that if I stayed, I, too, would become an eater of the dead.” Douglas manages to survive by killing and eating a rabbit. He ends his journal, “I don’t know if I will survive this terrible ordeal. Salvation may be over the next hill, or it may not. But one thing I know. Some folks will do terrible things to stay alive.”
Thinking About the Book
- When Douglas Allen Deeds and the rest of the Donner Party leave Independence, Missouri on May 12th, where are they headed? Why?
- What is “The Book?” Why do most of the travelers think it is “a marvelous book?” How do their perceptions of it change? Why?
- What is it about Douglas that causes Mr. George Donner to say it was a lucky day when Douglas joined up (June 5th)?
- Why is James Reed banished from the wagon train? Would you have voted for this punishment?
- In a few sentences define each of the following terms and why they are important in Douglas’s story?
* Manifest Destiny
* Starvation Lake
* Great Salt Lake
* Pioneer Palace Car
* Forlorn Hope
- Who do you think is the most heroic character in The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds? Why did you chose this person?
- On August 20th Mr. Breen says, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.” What does he mean? On November 22nd Douglas writes, “You can’t stop a whisper. It always finds a way to fly from ear to ear.” What does he mean? Do you think it is true?
- Rodman Philbrick, the author of The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds, does a fine job using words to describe the fear and desperation that grips the Donner Party. What journal entry do you think does the best job of showing these feelings? Compare your choice with the entries chosen by other members of your group.
- In Douglas’s journal entry for December 27th he writes, “Foster stared at me so hard it felt like a punch from his fist. Then speaking very slowly, as if to a child, he said, ‘We will eat what has been provided.’” Explain what Foster was telling Douglas.
- What three things did you learn about the Donner Party Expedition that surprised you most? Compare your list with others in your group. What were the most common responses?
- In your discussion group debate the following statement: The person or event most responsible for the Donner Party tragedy was Lunsford W. Hastings.
- Douglas Deeds and the rest of the settlers started out from Independence, Missouri, and had to cross rivers, plains, deserts and mountains on their way to California. Trace the route they took with this map on the PBS website.
- Snowshoes helped save some of the lives of the Donner Party. In his journal entry for December 17th Douglas writes, “The thing about snowshoes, you got to run sort of bowlegged, and it wears you out.” Borrow a pair of snowshoes and try walking with them on. Is Douglas right? Is it awkward?
- The Donner party encountered many different Indian tribes on their trek west: the Kaw, Sioux , Payhoot (Paiute) and Crow. See what you can find out about these tribes. How did they treat the members of the Donner party?
- One of the most popular poems written by an American poet is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Read this poem in your discussion group. Do the poem and The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds have anything in common?
Discussion guide written 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.