Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales books are a cheeky take on American history, but they are also sophisticated graphic storytelling that help bring the events to life in ways that simple prose could not. His latest book, The Donner Dinner Party, takes on a subject that has horrified and fascinated the public since it happened and not only dramatizes the events but puts them into perspective, often using maps and charts to illustrated the fate of the pioneers.
The author really is named Nathan Hale, but the narrator of his Hazardous Tales series is the other Nathan Hale, the patriot who was hanged during the American Revolution. As the historical Hale is standing on the gallows, about to deliver the famous line “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” something strange happens, and suddenly he and the buffoonish hangman and British soldier with him can see the future (which is our past). Like Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, Hale staves off execution by telling stories. Although the stories are serious, Hale brings in a surprising amount of humor, much of it from the hangman and soldier. (For a taste of Hale’s style, as well as more pages from The Donner Dinner Party, check out his blog.)
Still, making a children’s graphic novel about the ill-fated Donner Party, the pioneer wagon train that got trapped in the Sierra mountains in the 1840s and had to resort to cannibalism had to survive, seemed like a bold move. I asked the writer Nathan Hale to talk about the challenges and pleasures of writing about the Donner Party for children, and he threw in a few preview pages as well.
GC4K: I thought it was pretty audacious to make a children’s graphic novel that started with a hanging, but doing one on the Donner Party is even more out there. Why do you think this is an important story for children to read?
Nathan Hale: I’ve wanted to tell the Donner Party tale since the series started. It’s a great story with lots of twists and turns—many of them happening before the famous cannibalism episode. It is a true story, and it’s well documented, but it feels like an urban legend. I’ve seen kids tell the story around campfires. I think the Donner story, though it doesn’t end well for half of the party, is a perfect snapshot of the early days of westward migration—and a great horror story at the same time.
Were you worried about upsetting younger readers? How did you temper the emotional content of the events you describe?
I try to temper the emotional impact with humor. One of the narrators, for example, is far more upset about the death of the Donner pets than the acts of cannibalism. Also, I don’t show the deaths. Because it’s a graphic novel, I can do some visual tricks that wouldn’t work in other formats. In this book, Death is an actual character, a Grim Reaper-like presence that follows the Party through the ordeal—it doesn’t speak, and only the narrators can see it, but it tells the story in a visual metaphor that would only work in a comic book. When a Party member dies, their name appears on the black cloak of the figure.
The book is not gruesome. The actual act of cannibalism is never portrayed in the panels of the book—it’s implied and discussed, but you don’t see it. When things take a turn for the worse, our narrators turn to the reader and give them an option of skipping ahead to a page where the worst is over. I don’t think many readers will. That said, I don’t shy away from the facts. If you want all the details, you will get them in this book.
The book is dedicated to your great-great-great grandfather Eph Hanks, “a rescuer of snowbound pioneers.” Sounds like there’s a story there! What is it?
Yes, that is quite a story. In 1856 (a decade after the Donners) a group called the Martin and Willie Handcart Company was trapped in Wyoming by a fluke October blizzard. These were emigrants so poor they pulled carts by hand. They were Mormon settlers, heading to Utah. Ephraim Hanks was one of the first rescuers to reach them. They were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. Eph Hanks apparently spent a lot of time amputating their frostbitten fingers and toes. The death toll for the Martin and Willie Handcart company was over 200—more than double the loss suffered by the Donner Party.
I know you did a lot of research to write this book. What was the most useful or interesting source?
My favorite resource was put together by the Reno Gazette Journal, they wrote a day-by-day report on the Donner Party journey, it appeared each day in that newspaper. The entire thing was combined into a great book called The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train. It’s a hard to find book, but it’s a really good one.
What was the most surprising fact you ran across?
The Reed family (the family I focus on in the book) lived next door to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. This was years before he was president. Can you imagine having Abe Lincoln as your next door neigbor?
You portray Jack Reed as a pompous buffoon, refusing to listen to others, constantly leading people off in the wrong direction—do you think this is a fair portrayal, or were you exaggerating for effect?
“Pompous buffoon” is a fair description of James Reed. Everything he does in the book is based on documented events (okay, I made up the part where he sings about his buffalo hunt—but he did hunt that buffalo, and apparently was very boastful about it.) The only thing I exaggerated was his cartoony appearance. He looks very silly in the book. James Reed is responsible for most of the Donner Party’s bad decisions. He’s stranger than fiction, but a very compelling guy.
To what extent do you think the Donner Party’s misadventures had to do with bad information and poor communication? How did they themselves make things worse?
James Reed read about a shortcut in a book. That was 100% bad information. Many people on the trail told him it was bad information, but he didn’t listen. The communication was there, James Reed just wasn’t listening. That shortcut slowed their progress by over a month. If they hadn’t taken the shortcut, they’d have made it to California safe and sound. And nobody would have ever heard of the Donner Party.
Once they took the shortcut, it was just one bad decision after another. Bad luck, bad timing, bad everything.
I see from the back of the book that you live in Utah. Have you traveled through any of the areas the Donner party went through? What did you think?
Yes, I have visited many of the locations in the book. The Salt Flats in the Great Salt Lake Desert are pretty spectacular. Definitely not a place you’d EVER want to walk across (as the Donner Party did.) And the scrub oak forests they had to chop through in Reed’s Gap are so unbelievably dense, it’s hard to imagine how much work it would have taken to chop a road through for wagons.
What’s the next book going to be about? Or I should say—what are the research babies working on now?
The next book is about World War One. I’m happy to announce that it will be out in 2014—the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War One. The babies have their work cut out for them. For the Donner Party, I needed good visual reference for 1800s traveling clothes, wagons, battle dress for a few Native American tribes, and a few forts. There were photos of some of the party members, not all, but some. I also needed to know what the major landmarks on the Oregon Trail looked like.
World War One, on the other hand, has been a visual reference MONSTER. I need reference for all of the uniforms for each country’s various armies. I need to know what each country’s weapons look like—a French machine gun looks nothing like a German machine gun, 1914 artillery looks nothing like 1917 artillery. The planes, the cars, the shovels (that’s right, I had to make sure each country was using the right shovel!) not to mention the locations. What do Belgium’s Liege fortresses look like—what did they look like in 1914? The amount of detail has made this book the trickiest one yet, but it’s coming together and I think kids will like it. There’s a little twist to it, as you’ve come to expect from the Hazardous Tales books, that will make it very different from any other WWI book for children. But I have to keep that secret a bit longer.