To Stay Alive by Skila Brown, 304 pp, RL5

The saga of the Donner Party is fascinating to me, perhaps because I am a native Californian. More likely because, as an adult, I read Nathan Hale's excellent graphic novel recounting this story of survival, Donner Dinner Party. Despite the witty title, Hale handles the gruesome events with tact and respect for his young audience. He also shares so many facts that I had not known before, like the fact that George Donner murdered a man in anger during the journey and that one young member of the party actually died from overeating just after being rescued.  While Hale's graphic novel is packed with facts, in To Stay Alive,   Skila Brown masterfully uses the verse novel format to explore this story from the perspective of Mary Ann Graves, who was nineteen when the novels begins.

The second oldest child in a family of nine, Mary Ann and her family leave Lacon, Illinois with three horses, twenty head of cattle, eighteen oxen and three wagons. There are thirteen in the Graves party, including Jay Fosdick, oldest child Sarah's husband, and John Snyder, a hired hand who is stabbed to death by an irate George Donner before the snows even set in. While Hale, with an omniscient narrator, is able to share all aspects of the Donner Party, their struggles and outcomes, Brown's book gives us only Mary Ann's experience with an author's note at the end recounting the fates of the others. In doing this, Brown is able to have Mary Ann comment on the experience of being a woman in 1846. While expected to work as hard as the men, especially because she is not a child, her opinion means nothing, she has no say. In the poem, "In the Canyon," after the men have made the ill-fated choice to take Hasting's Cutoff, promised to be a well traveled shortcut, but really a forest, Mary Ann thinks,

Each time I push on a rock, I think
that these men in our camp
cannot admit when they're wrong.

Each time I snap off a limb, I think
that those men at the fort
did not know a shortcut, had us make one instead.

Each time I pick up a load of brush that scratches my face, I think
how much easier it will be for those who come
next year, now that we've made a path.

Divided by the four seasons with Winter being the longest section, To Stay Alive is completely gripping, but also hard to read if you are familiar with the history of the Donner Party. However, Mary Ann's strength of character and intelligence, as portrayed by Brown, kept me reading throughout the bleak and startling poems, many of which combine form and words in dynamic ways that allow you to feel the extreme jostling of riding in the wagon or the rush and flow of the Humboldt River or the intense pain of the cold and the blinding white of the snow. Fabric, sewing and specifically quilting was a theme in To Stay Alive that I felt was especially powerful. In fact, the first poem of the novel is, "New Dress" where Mary Ann describes her newly made travel dress,

thick and crisp and green, 
     white buttons in a line,
a bright stiff collar, perched high.
      It's a dress for adventure,
a dress ready for
    whatever it will face.
Strongly stitched, unspoiled, new,
     well made.
It is meant to endure.

By the end of the novel, this enduring new dress is much like Mary Ann herself, stained from the blood of the Graves' last heads of cattle they slaughtered for food, stained from the blood of a deer she and William Eddy killed while trying to make their way over the mountain pass. Mary Ann notes that fabric of her green dress is, "stiff again - / not from newness, but from / something else, something that won't let it bend," as she tears strips of it off with her teeth, using it to bind and protect her feet, which are bleeding and aching after thirty-two days trying to make it to Sutter's Fort. She recoils "at the stench of her dress." Over the course of their journey, Mary Ann had been sewing a quilt. She leaves the finished quilt behind at Truckee Lake when she joins the party that will leave camp and ultimately find help. It is this same quilt that her youngest brother is wrapped in, buried in the mountains, in their Mother's arms. In Brown's version of Graves's story, Mary Ann spends her four months of recovery at Sutter's Fort sewing a new quilt, one made from the gray remnants of her clothing. 

It is a field of gray, 
                        a wall or worn-out worry,
                                                patches and patches
                                               of sewn-together sorrow.
But that is only the background.
on top of there is a rainbow of life,
                                a tapestry of creatures,
                                                     a forest of hope,

                                                 for I used brightly colored threads.

To Stay Alive is a powerfully told story of survival, made even more so by Brown's crafting of the poems that make up this novel. I look forward to the next subject that she chooses to turn her poetic sights to.

Source: Review Copy

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