I'll be honest, for as much as a don't like history and I do LOVE Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, the first two books in what I hope is a very long running series being One Dead Spy and Big Bad Iron Clad, I was not looking forward to the newest installment, Donner Dinner Party. I think you know why. Most kids, including my 9 year old son, don't though. With a great amount of interest and a bit of glee, I handed Donner Dinner Party over to him knowing he would devour it like he did the first two tales, and waited for his reaction. I heard more about how much bacon was brought along for each person on the wagon train that I did the fact that cannibalism occurred during their struggle to stay alive as they made their way to California. I am chalking this up to the fact that kids and adults just have different perspectives on this kind of thing, much like the way that the book Wonder by RJ Palacio inevitably leaves adults in tears while most kids never even get misty-eyed while reading it, no matter how much they love it. I tell you all this with the hopes of convincing you to give this amazing book (that you, the adult, might consider disturbing) to the history-loving-young-reader in your life and/or the graphic-novel-loving young reader in your life and/or the reluctant reader in your life because I guarantee you that he (I think we all know that more boys will be drawn to this book than girls) will thank you over and over by reading it hungrily and talking to you about it after, and probably during.
For those of you who are still concerned, if not queasy, about sharing this piece of history with your kids, Nathan Hale's greatest triumph and genius as the author of these stellar graphic novels is how he tells his story in each book, all of which deal with some of the less admirable aspects of human nature as well as some tumultuous, bloody periods in history, Donner Dinner Party being the best example (to date) of this skill. Hale pulls together fascinating facts from the events, telling the story but also putting it in a larger context for the reader. Knowing what the worst, most upsetting part (for me) of this story would be, I read on, intrigued and engrossed every page of the journey, my trepidation often overshadowed by my interest in the story being told.
While the Donners are the most famous family to emerge from this story, even having a pass named for them, Hale chooses James Reed. In fact, the children's book, Patty Reed's Doll by Rachel Laurgaard, a diary of the journey told from the perspective of a doll that Patty Reed tucks into her pocket, is a staple of fourth grade reading here in California when this time period is studied. Hale employs "correction babies" to provide readers with hard facts where he might have fudged a bit to tell his story, and they appear at the end of each book, answering questions and setting the story straight. One big question I had while reading Donner Dinner Party was, "Is James Reed for real???" and the lone correction baby who stayed on board for this difficult story answered my question. Yes, according to all of Hale's research (he also includes a bibliography with each book) James Reed was as "wacky and silly" (Hale's words) as he is portrayed in the book. Wacky and silly are nice - James Reed was an egotistical, mule-headed man who ignored the advice of others in favor of his own opinions and ideas, ideas that caused half of the people in his wagon train to die. He does make for a great character in Donner Dinner Party and I often found myself, along with Nathan Hale (the historical figure) the Provost and the Hangman (with Hale as the story teller, putting off his eventual hanging, and the Provost and Hangman as his audience, they provide a framework and occasional commentary for the historical event being unfurled) shouting, "What next? What other crazy thing can Reed do?"
When it does come to the part with cannibalism, Hale, handles it admirably. He does a fine job of detailing the hardships and struggles of the emigrants every step of the way leading up to this point, even showing the toll that this journey took on the animals, from the oxen to the horses to the family pets, having the Hangman react with vociferous sorrow when he realizes that Cashy, the Reed's dog, has been eaten. Hal, in the voice of Nathan (historical) Hale then gives the reader (and the Hangman) the chance to skip ahead several pages, saying that the next part of this tale, "is not for the faint of heart. Horrible things are going to happen. If you are easily upset, you may want to skip ahead to page 113." The Hangman says he can't bear for anymore "cute lil animals" to be eaten and Hale assures him that there won't be. Again, Hale protects and prompts the reader, trying to let him/her know what's ahead. When the cannibalism occurs, it is off the page and referred to by Nathan (historical) Hale, and earlier allusion to this being made by the dying Franklin Graves who asks that his flash not go to waste. Then it's not mentioned again. While the act of cannibalism is what the Donner Party are most famous for, Hale makes Donner Dinner Party about so much more than that. Which I think is exactly why my son was more fascinated by the 150 pounds of bacon loaded into the wagons at the start of the book.
I learned so many amazing historical facts while reading this book, including the sad, sad story of William Hook, the equally sad story of Salvador and Luis, Miwok guides, and incredible facts about the survivors. The "yearbook" spread, above, is another powerful way to visually tell this sad story, and yet another brilliant facet of Hale's storytelling skills.
I'm not sure what Hale's next tale will be, but reading Donner Dinner Party made me hungry (no pun intended) to read about Lewis & Clark and I hope the story of these two explorers is told by Hale & the gang some day soon! Until then, check out this beauty, as built by Hale who, besides sharing the name of a great historical figure, is also crazy for Legos!
Source: Review Copy