TitleThe Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride
Author: Daniel James Brown
Published: 2009
Publisher: William Morrow
Audiobook Narrator: Michael Prichard

My fascination with true crime has lead me to one of the more hilarious and fascinating podcasts on the subject: the Last Podcast on the Left. The three hosts have turned their little podcast into a career, and they produce some of the most detailed, interesting shows about various subjects – mainly true crime – of any show I have ever listened to. Recently, I decided that I wanted to learn more about something that I knew virtually nothing about, and that was the “Donner Party”. Sure, I’ve heard the name muttered in the past, and I was fairly certain it had something to do with cannibalism, but other than that, I was completely ignorant to the story behind those two words. It just so happened that one of my favorite podcasts had done a couple episodes on this back in 2018. So I took some time away from my audiobooks, and listened to both episodes over the course of a few days. I learned a ton! Throughout the podcast episodes, the hosts constantly praised The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown as their main source of research for the show. I decided, after listening to the podcasts, that I needed to know more, so I set out to read the book.

Indifferent Stars focuses its narrative around the story of one young woman who was a part of the Donner party. Sarah Graves travelled with her family west in hopes of finding something better. On the way to California, her family met up with the Donner family, and they joined together, along with many other families, to create what we know today as the Donner Party. This party had 87 people in total, which is truly incredible when you realize where they end up. As the group makes their way west, they are struck with unimaginably bad luck, poor leadership making terrible decisions, and some of the most harrowing situations one could ever imagine.

I’m struggling to not just start listing facts about this story that those with a casual interest in the story may not know. When my dad mentioned something about dinner when he visited the other day, I somehow managed to twist that into the fact that I was reading this book, and then spent the next twenty minutes “teaching” him some of the more grim details I’d learned about the Donner party. Though I don’t want to spend time discussing the details of the history of the Donner party, I have to point out that even though this was called the “Donner Party”, it was really the brainchild of a man named James Reed. Last Podcast on the Left jokingly compares the situation to a “shadow government” of sorts. George Donner was the elected leader of the group, but James Reed was actually the one calling the shots. He’s the reason the party left weeks later than they should have, why the chose to take an ill-concieved shortcut, and, ultimately, the reason why only 46 of the 87 migrants made it alive to California (yes, he did come back to help save people as well, but they wouldn’t have needed saving if he wasn’t so hard-headed).

Indifferent Stars provides an interesting look at not only the Donner party’s travel across the land, but life in the 1840s as a whole, which is something I knew nothing about beforehand. It’s an utterly fascinating, horrific story that is stranger than any fiction novel you could come across. It is a piece of history that I am glad I know more about, and is a wonderful lesson in the lengths that human beings are able to go to survive. There are moments of cowardice, but even more of heroism, all worth knowing. This is what makes my conclusion to this audiobook so disappointing.

Michael Prichard narrates the audiobook, and he is the first narrator that I genuinely disliked. His narration is boring, lifeless, and monotonous. If I had purchased this audiobook with a credit on Audible, I would have returned it because I was so disappointed with the narrator. Fortunately, this was available on Hoopla to rent with a library card, so I avoided wasting any cash on the book. I will also point out here that, even though I finished this book about a week ago, it has completely disappeared from Hoopla, Audible, and Amazon. I genuinely have no clue where it went, but the audiobook is no longer available on any of those platforms as of this writing.

As must-know as this history is, the best way to get this story is simply by listening to The Last Podcast on the Left’s multi-episode show on the subject. They keep the most important details, make you laugh along the way, and do it in a much quicker way than the ten to eleven hour audiobook. The information in Indifferent Stars is some of the most brutal and messed up I have ever learned, which says a lot, but this audiobook is not the best way to take it all in. Instead, stick to the podcast, or even the print form of the book. Really, though, the Last Podcast crew does a great job of summing things up in about three hours, so that is how I’d recommend learning about the incredible history that is the story of the Donner party.