Perhaps it's ironic that I read Shana Youngdahl's chapbook, "Donner: A Passing" ($12 in paper from Finishing Line Press, www.finishinglinepress.com) on the third day of my evacuation from the area threatened by the Camp Fire. Though we were well cared for by friends, there was no mistaking the sense of displacement that must have gripped the group of nearly 90 people. My battle was with fire, theirs with ice, and the outcome was far different. The fire danger lessened, and we returned home. For the 81 trapped in the Sierra snows in the winter of 1846, one accounting says 36 died.
Youngdahl, a Paradise native who now teaches at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, has written 25 short poems that retell the story of the Donner Party, from packing day in Springfield, Illinois, in April 1846, to the survival a year later of a man named Keseberg, one of the party. "It is rumored, he bragged: he ate their children, / even called them by name, claimed Tamsen / died of grief upon George's death. . . ."
The reader is advised first to read one of the narratives of the Donner Party which exist online, and then to take up quietly, carefully, Youngdahl's terse, searing words. Lansford Hastings had promised a shortcut to California, but what little guidance he offered proved fatal. First came the desert trek: "To moisten children's mouths, Tamsen gives each / a lump of sugar wet with mint. / Later: a bullet to chew."
Later comes the fateful climb into the mountains, the snowfall which stops the party dead in its tracks, and the unspeakable events that to this day are not perfectly understood. The cabins are inundated in snow. "Little movement, this, the felling / of trees. The dead / frozen-eyed storms. // The bible murmured aloud, a forsaken / mountain where few breathe. // Each day the same bones / boiled and chewed. // The known world: thinning."
"It had been Tamsen's plan," the poet writes, "to feed her children flesh / from frozen bodies. Perhaps / they did not know what the meat / was, and could only stare / at the fire. . . ."
Ice is like fire. It burns a hole in the heart.