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Snow Mountain Passage


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About the Author

James D. Houston (1933-2009) was the author of several novels and nonfiction works exploring the history and cultures of the western United States and the Asia/Pacific region. His works include Snow Mountain Passage, Continental Drift, In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey, and The Last Paradise, which received a 1999 American Book Award for fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Jim received a National Endowment for the Arts writing grant, a Library of Congress Story Award, and traveled to Asia lecturing for the U.S.I.S. Arts America program.


The myth of California has been a preoccupation of Houston's in both his fiction (Continental Drift) and nonfiction (Californians). Here he reimagines the saga of perhaps the most infamous of California dreamers: the ill-fated Donner Party. The story is told primarily from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the leaders of the party, who sets out in a luxurious, fully equipped wagon he calls the Palace Car, with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Somewhere in Nevada, jealousy and trumped-up murder charges oblige him to ride ahead alone, leaving his family behind with the party. When the wagon train is stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevada, Reed must try on his own to assemble a rescue team. His efforts bring him into contact with petty despots (John Sutter, for example), thieves and opportunists, as well as people of uncommon nobility and dignity. In making Reed central to the story, Houston is true to history (the Donner brothers were marginal players in the drama) as he presents a compelling portrait of a man who was a mixture of renegade and hero, his unrealistic dreams of grandeur imperiling his family. Alternating with Reed's tale are trail notes written from memory 75 years later by his daughter Patty, depicting the despair and madness besetting starving members of the snowed-in families. A dispassionate observer at age eight, Patty learns to trust and reveal her compassion, and sitting by the bay in Santa Cruz as an old woman, she brings a redemptive note to an undertaking usually viewed with reflexive loathing. Haunting and immediate, Houston's novel reveals its protagonists in all their vulnerability and moral ambiguity. (Apr.) Forecast: This could be a breakout book for Houston, who has a solid but mostly local reputation. His previous efforts have fared well critically, but a 40,000 first printing signals Knopf's commitment to leading his latest into the promised land of higher sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Houston (Continental Drift) reimagines the fate of the Donner party, telling the tale from the perspective of one proud man, separated from the rest, who beats the snows over the mountains but then turns back to rescue his family. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Adult/High School-Houston evokes a keen and majestic sense of the land and conveys an insightful portrait of selected members of the Donner Party as he recounts their ill-fated journey from Springfield, IL, to California during the winter of 1846-1847. The author uses the device of viewing events from two alternating perspectives. The opening chapters present a third-person account focusing on James Frazier Reed, who, as one of the leaders of the expedition, traveled with his wife and four children. These chapters resonate with the passionate pioneer vision of those whose dreams inspired the crossing, and who subsequently dealt with the privations, personal discords, and catastrophic weather that befell the wagon train. The sense of urgency for rescue is paramount; readers witness acts of selflessness and heroism even as some in the party succumb to cannibalism when desperation presses them beyond the limits of endurance. In the complementary chapters, the author crafts a perspective in the first-person voice of Reed's daughter, Patty, whose "Trail Notes" are penned some 75 years later. These passages yield the retrospective reflections of an octogenarian gazing back upon the journey she made as an eight-year-old. Her memories are stark and piercing, but time and distance conspire to lend a gentling to her voice and a compassionate reluctance to pass judgment upon her fellow wayfarers. This well-told and riveting historical novel is based upon a heavily documented episode in American history that has generated considerable conjecture and analysis and is rich in material for student discussion.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.


In a class by itself. The novel takes one of the most ghoulish, garish parts of our national myth and transforms it into a dignified, powerful narrative of our shared American destiny.--The Washington Post Book World
Houston doesn't try to cram us with history; he opens doors to it and invites us in. The result is an eloquent tribute to human endurance.--San Jose Mercury News
A clear-eyed view of humanity's heart of darkness.--The Atlantic Monthly
This is one of the essential stories of the American westward movement, and seldom has it been told with such exemplary passion and pathos. Houston has made another significant contribution to the genre's revival.--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[Houston] is able to take on the territory of legend and make it his own.
-San Francisco Chronicle

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