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"Patty Reed's Doll - The Story of the Donner Party" (1956), Author Rachel K. Laurgaard's Children's Story Based on the True Pioneering Tragedy

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Okay, so you're saying to yourselves, "What on earth is Rockwell doing reading a book aimed at children?"

One day last year, I was in Sacramento, CA, and visited the State Capitol Building, a beautiful, Classical Revival building that is considered one of our nation's loveliest state capitols - and it is, too, especially when taken as an ensemble with its stunning grounds. Sacramento is not all that far from the bay area, and taking a day trip to see the State Capitol will be a day well-spent - it is a truly stunning building, and the grounds alone are easily worth an hour or two - an abundance of restaurants are within a mile.

Anyway, my guide had earlier mentioned the California Gold Rush - a topic about which I know precious little - and also told me of The Donner Party <--- SPOILERS ABOUND: a pioneering excursion out to Sacramento which ended in great tragedy and suffering for many, and a very famous local legend (which also happens to be true). I hadn't even heard of The Donner Party, and when I stumbled across the State Capitol Gift Shop, I saw this little book: "Patty Reed's Doll - The Story of the Donner Party." It looked like a relatively new printing, as it was originally written in 1956 by Rahel K. Laurgaard - then, an English Literature graduate student at what is now Sacramento State.

Does that sound obscure enough? Well, apparently, *someone* thought highly enough of this book to print it and sell it, and at least one copy now resides in the Washington, DC area - let me tell you something: I'm glad I read this. It was about 140 quick pages - maybe a 3-4 hour read with charming black-and-white illustrations - and written at a teenage, perhaps even an elementary-school level (many comments that you see about it online are fond reminisces of ladies reading it to their granddaughters - it's that kind of book). So why am I reading a book written for teenage girls? (I confess also, when I visited Prince Edward Island, I bought, read, *and enjoyed* Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery) I have no problem whatsoever with teenage literature if it's *good* teenage literature, and there was nothing condescending at all about "Patty Reed's Doll" other than it was *clearly* toned down, and written by a woman, for young girls (and I suppose also young boys) as its target audience - but it was done so intelligently.


There's one word that isn't mentioned, or even hinted at, in this entire book, and it's a five-syllable, ultra-taboo word which begins with the letter C. The Donner Party, you see, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846-1847 (*), having been given (if you'll excuse the pun) one bum steer after another, especially from Lansford Hastings who wrote a little book about Hasting's Cutoff, a route that was supposed to take 300 miles off the arduous voyage for these brave pioneers, and which ultimately led to this disaster - the book also does not mention that, aside from reports of cannibalism, 48 of 87 people died during passage.

The book is told from the fascinating perspective of "Dolly" - 12-year-old Patty Reed's 4-inch-tall, wooden doll which she secretly kept inside her pocket for the duration of the voyage. This ingenious perspective gave Laurgaard the exact literary device she needed to conceal the more gruesome aspects of this tragic voyage from the reader, and to spare children details of consuming human flesh. The fact that Dolly belonged to the Reed party - instead of the Donner party - also gave her one more level of concealment from the horrible fate which befell many of the parties, as the Dinner (I keep accidentally typing that word) ... the *Donner* Party wasn't staying in the same cabin - it was easy to use these conveniences to forego the more taboo subjects of the story.

Most people might tell you that this isn't a good "first book" to read about the issue, but I disagree. Going into the book, I knew about the snowstorm, and I knew that accusations of cannibalism had been made, and apparently, because of the sensationalism, these two bits of information are the only things that most people know. Since this book doesn't touch on the latter, you get a real feel for what it must have been like to be a pioneer. In fact, you felt as if you were actually one of the party members, taking part in the passage - you really got the whole story of the trans-continental journey, and a real feel for what the life of a pioneer must have been; if you want the gory details, just click on the Donner Party Wikipedia link at the top - it has extensive references to all the gore and misery you care to handle; personally, I'm glad I read the toned-down version, as there are only so many "disaster stories" I can endure during my lifetime - I just do not enjoy reading about human suffering, and this book conveys the essence of the voyage while sparing the reader the awful realities that accompany it. Yes, you could say it was whitewashed, and it was, but that's because it was purposely written for a young audience. Undoubtedly, in Sacramento, this story was already widely known - certainly by the parents who bought the book for their children - and to rehash its cruelest aspects would be, if you'll forgive the phrase, beating a dead horse.

Unless you go to Sacramento - where Laurgaard ended up being an English Professor for over 15 years at the university - or unless you call somewhere out there and ask where to find the book, you're likely never to see it. But you can find it if you look for it; unfortunately, this is something of a "charming relic" from a more innocent era - one in which it wasn't necessary to graphically show or describe every gruesome detail for the viewer or the reader. I appreciated its restraint very much, and *now* I can choose to go in and read about the more difficult realities (I still haven't, and I might not, although now that I'm thinking about it, I probably will). Using the wooden doll as the narrator was brilliant, and afforded the author an elegant solution to a difficult problem.

It may surprise you to hear that, despite the "prim and proper" language used throughout (think: the five daughters in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (whom I can still name in descending order of age: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kit, and Lydia (JEM KILL - that's how I remembered)), I didn't feel like I was reading some Victorian moralist child's tale; I just felt like I was reading a well-written book for teens learning about California history - teens who were spared the gory details of one of the worst possible conundrums human beings can find themselves facing. I recommend "Patty Reed's Doll" for just about anyone, and you certainly will not regret the three-hour investment of your time in learning about this distinctly American tragedy.

The actual Patty Reed's Doll is on display at Sutter's Fort in Sacramento (visitor information):

11/13/12 - "Sutter's Fort Offers Visitor Enhancements and Return of Patty Reed Doll" by Tracie Rockefeller Cusack on sacramentopress.com

I'll be happy to lend a copy of my book to anyone not able to find it.

(*) When you think that this was less than 10 generations ago, it's no wonder we're still so primitive. We've had a lot of industrial and technological advances, sure - too many for our feeble minds to deal with - but we had no electricity, we had slavery, we were fighing the Mexican-American War, the Civil War wouldn't take place for another generation, the western frontier of the U.S. was Independence, Missouri, we had no automobiles, no telephones ... we're not that far removed from all of this.

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I have lived in California for 24 years, and everyone out here knows about the Donner party. Stories about Western migration are fascinating, and I am glad you enjoyed learning more about the pioneer life.

The California elementary school curriculum places a great deal of emphasis on pioneer living. As a young mom who grew up in the Midwest, I enjoyed learning along with my kids about this rich part of our American heritage when they studied it in school.

The next time you come to Northern California, you should visit Sutter's Fort.

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You might want to seek out the Ric Burns documentary, "The Donner Party", which ran on "The American Experience" in 1992. All of the Burns brothers' documentaries are interchangeable to some extent, but there's lots of interesting stuff in most of them, including this one.

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