Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ordeal by Picnic

In Carson City for work, I can't help thinking as I do every time I'm here on these slopes heading up to the Sierras about the Donner Party. When I was only about twelve years old I read George Stewart's, Ordeal by Hunger, a classic history of westward pioneers who didn't plan or execute well and suffered disastrous consequences. My parents had that book and overhearing that it was some scandalous story, I sneaked a read and ended up awake all night until I could finish.

About the same time, we took a family trip and visited with some old college friends of my parents who lived in Reno. They took us to a picnic up at, yeah, Donner Lake. I couldn't eat a thing.

Monument at Donner Lake
Pedestal is the depth of the snow Winter of 1846-47 (22 feet) 
I just read another book which I sort of recommend, Winston Groom's Kearny's March:The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847 (Knopf 2011). I wanted to read about the Mormon Battalion in the broader context of General Kearny's story and the War with Mexico. I got even more than I bargained for with an entertaining tale weaving the various marches, treks, and battles of that momentous year of 1846. The author even has a little fun with Bernard DeVoto, calling him "a brilliant, if eccentric, scholar of western history."

About 90%, well, maybe 80% accuracy is what I would award the book based on its characterization of my Mormons. It's not just inaccuracy in the facts, but the tone is overly playful, even more so than with DeVoto. Like this example:
Joseph Smith began to receive converts soon as his Book of Mormon was published, but once the citizens of his neck of the woods got a gander at its contents their open hostility was enough to convince him that the flock better be moved as quickly as possible. 
Groom at 150. Cute, but odd. Most critics didn't need so much as a gander to decide against whatever the contents. It was the mere existence of a book of scripture as an apparent threat to their established religions, or none at all, that seemed to provoke sufficient hostility.

Also troubling were things like how Smith supposedly lost to Polk in the presidential election of 1844 when he was actually killed before any votes were cast and the wildly speculative fantasy that he had married "forty women and sired innumerable children." Groom at 152. Now, I don't have my Bushman with me here. There were some plural wives, if secret. And history is not at all clear what the actual relationships were all about. But "innumerable children" seems a bit of a stretch as I am not aware of a single solid case. Joseph had several children with Emma and fathering children with plural wives is not out of the question, but it certainly wasn't "innumerable" if no one can clearly establish "any."

And then Brigham Young described as "short, fat, and practical" seems like just a cheap shot. It is also likely wrong at least according to Elder L. Tom Perry who once said Brigham was 5'10" - my height - perfectly average for my generation and likely a little taller in the mid-1800s. I suppose you could call Brigham's stoutness "fat" if you were rude. But at least Groom got the "practical" right.

I enjoyed Groom's entertaining descriptions of John C. Frémont, Kit Carson, Zachary Taylor, Alexander Doniphan and many others. But I have to be skeptical as he may have employed the same "cute" inaccuracies in fleshing out these characters like he did my Mormons. The main problem is that Groom wrote this book as popular history with a lot of sources listed in a bibliography, but without specific citations to his conclusions or "facts" in footnotes or end notes.

Some of the most compelling parts of the book are his descriptions of the Donner disaster. But in those, he actually gives much attribution and praise to the compelling author of my youth, George Stewart.

So, maybe I'll just stick with Stewart. Or I'll go out to a bookstore for some other treatment of western history.

But I'm definitely not staying up all night to plan any picnics on the slopes of the wintery Sierras. Some things just shouldn't be that popular.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Feel free to disagree as many do. You can even be passionate (in moderation). Comments that contain offensive language, too many caps, conspiracy theories, gratuitous Mormon bashing, personal attacks on others who comment, or commercial solicitations- I send to spam. This is a troll-free zone. Charity always!