Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party
Written and Illustrated by Nathan Hale
Amulet Books – and Imprint of Abrams, 2013
128 pp. 978-1-4197-0856-5.
In the third book in the series of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, the Donner Party tragedy gets the graphic novel treatment that combines historical facts of their terrible plight intermixed with creator Nathan Hale’s now trademarked irreverent humor. Right from the get go, with a title like Donner Dinner Party, you know you’re in for a ride of misfortune, bad luck, bad decisions, short cuts, and cannibalism.
Those of you familiar with the first two books in the series—One Dead Spy and Big Bad Ironclad —already know what to expect, and you won’t be disappointed. Once again the narrator of the story is the Nathan Hale, the famous Revolutionary War hero. He’s joined by the humorous hangman and the stodgy constable, both of whom want to hear another tale of American history before Hale is ultimately hanged. Instead of featuring another epic war tale as in the first two volumes, Nathan decides to tell an American story of true hardship, heartbreak, hunger, and loss. When a group of pioneers leave their Illinois home behind in 1846 and seek a better life in California, their trip across the United States goes from bad to worse.
The focus in the book is the Reed family: James, his wife Margaret, and their children Virginia, Martha, James Jr., and Thomas. James is shown to be a bit buffoonish, at times prone to bad decision-making, jovial in the face of sadness, and not too smart about most things. As they journey westward to California through torrential rain, tremendous heat, frigid days, rivers, deserts, and mud pits, cutting through brush, losing livestock and worse, they’re joined by the Donner family and many others as well that the author takes great care to account for in the book. When the opportunity for a short cut westward that will save the travelers 400 miles off the Oregon Trail, past Fort Bridger, is brought up by James Reed despite being told many times to forsake the route, the party ultimately decides to take the “Hastings Cut-Off,” and their fate is sealed.
The biggest assets of the book are the inclusion of humor as well as the sheer amount of research that Nathan Hale included; cited sources are listed in the bibliography. The families that travelled with the Donner Party are clearly featured as the treacherous journey began and nicely set up so the reader can see their names and ages. The locations of all the camps set up during the deadly winter are clearly illustrated and in a visually effective manner. At the end of the book, there’s a wonderful chart of all the travelers who died and survived that is clear to understand and quite powerful, showing the fates of so many who just wanted a fresh start.
Younger readers may see a little of themselves in the children in the book—the disappointment in the faces of the younger Reed family members when they have to hunt for buffalo chips, and the ensuing humor when daughter Virginia gets a face full of them, is just precious, as well as the dread of traveling with grandma on the trip. There are poignant parts as well, such as the sadness facing such a bitter winter, which younger readers won’t forget.
Nathan Hale sets up a very humorous running gag with the Hangman getting attached to some of the livestock owned by the Reed family, such as Virginia Reed’s pony named Billy, who is let loose after being too worn out for travel. The deaths of the humans and the subject of cannibalism aren’t too much for the Hangman, but he’s on his hands and knees sobbing over the loss of Billy the pony. It’s a clever way to divert from the overall tragedy of the Donner party.
The book isn’t for the faint-hearted. It is a very grim true story. Death is ever-present in the book—expressed visually as the Grim Reaper in the final chapters—and there’s no sugar coating of it. Hale does offer readers the opportunity to skip a portion of the book that focuses on the deaths of the parties and the cannibalism. Readers with a squeamish stomach can skip the visits of the death and rejoin the story after the survivors are rescued.
Nathan Hale has tackled a tough subject and made it visually stimulating, educational, and thought provoking. It’s not the most pleasant of reads, due to the subject matter, but once again Nathan Hale is proving that he’s a meticulous and well-researched creator out to educate, inform, and also interject humor into some of our country’s most significant events. I can’t wait to see what other tales both Nathan Hales will tell.