A Review of WHEN WINTER COMES by V.A. Shannon


WHEN WINTER COMES by V.A. Shannon (October 30th 2018 by Kensington) is a historical novel about the ill-fated Donner Party. As soon as I saw that there was a new novel coming out about the Donner Party, I knew I had to check it out. Thanks to repeated readings of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and countless hours spent playing the Oregon Trail computer games, I grew up with a (un)healthy obsession with the American West and westward expansion. That obsession has lasted well into my adulthood. What happened to the ill-fated Donner Party was just one of the many incidents in western history that fascinates me, and I’m still upset that none of the Oregon Trail games gave us the option of resorting to cannibalism when the food ran out. Perhaps that might have been too morbid or taboo for a children’s game that had our characters repeatedly dying of dysentery and, starting in Oregon Trail III, gave us the option to rub salt in the wound despite the injury our fictional pioneers suffered. Oh, William just accidently shot himself in the foot while cleaning his shotgun?...Let’s just rub some salt in the wound and see how that goes. After all, William is going to die of dysentery sooner or later.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding what really happened during those long winter months that the Donner Party was trapped in the mountains. Some of the survivors later told their stories – but with each retelling, the stories became more and more embellished. The survivors pointed the finger of blame and vilified each other. They contradicted each other’s stories. And then the rescuers told their versions of what they claim they witnessed and overheard, and that only muddied the truth even more.

What we do know is that in 1846, a large group of pioneers set out from Independence, Missouri and headed west to California. Along the way, a group of less than 100 people broke off from the group and attempted to take a shortcut that they were told would get them to California weeks earlier than if they continued on the established route. This group – known as the Donner Party or the Donner-Reed Party – wound up getting trapped by heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. During the months they were caught in the mountains, many died and the survivors were forced to result to cannibalism to survive. But what was the extent of the cannibalism?

WHEN WINTER COMES is a heartbreaking novel about survival and human nature. The story is told in the first person perspective of one of the survivors, and it switches back and forth between the past (the lengthy trip west and the nightmarish struggle to survive the winter) and the present (13 years later). The narrator is a nameless teenage girl who fled an abusive, hardscrabble life in Cincinnati and joined up with the wagon train as a helpmate to a married couple and their young daughter. In the beginning, the main character is an immature, annoying child. As she travel west, she grows as a person and becomes a mature woman. The nameless character, only known as Mrs. Jacob Klein in the “present” parts of the novel, has never told anyone – not even her husband or children – that is one of the Donner Party survivors. She is too scared of how her family, friends, and neighbors will treat her if they knew. So, instead of sharing her story with anyone, she tells her story in the pages of her journal. She might never tell anyone her version of events, but she is setting the record straight (at least for herself) of what really happened during those months in the mountains. She’s read the accounts from other survivors – she’s read all the rumors and the lies – and her purpose is to defend their actions, champion the real heroes, and condemn the actual villains. Mrs. Jacob Klein showcases the people who traveled with the Donner Party – showing what kind of people they were during the journey and how they changed for better or worse during the months they were snowbound in the mountain. She also recounts the highlights of the journey.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.