The Best Land Under Heaven

The Best Land Under Heaven

The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

Book - 2017
Average Rating:
Rate this:
"In the eerily warm spring of 1846, George Donner placed this advertisement in a local newspaper as he and a restless caravan prepared for what they hoped would be the most rewarding journey of a lifetime. But in eagerly pursuing what would a century later become known as the "American dream," this optimistic-yet-motley crew of emigrants was met with a chilling nightmare; in the following months, their jingoistic excitement would be replaced by desperate cries for help that would fall silent in the deadly snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada. We know these early pioneers as the Donner Party, a name that has elicited horror since the late 1840s. Now, celebrated historian Michael Wallis--beloved for his myth-busting portraits of legendary American figures--continues his life's work of parsing fact from fiction to tell the true story of one of the most embroidered sagas in Western history..."--Jacket.
Publisher: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2017
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780871407696
Branch Call Number: 978 Wa
Description: xx, 455 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
TSCPL_ScarlettFH Jun 01, 2018

This book provides the ultimate cautionary tale of America’s westward expansion. While we all know how it ended for the Donners, the story of how they ended up there is a story all its own. The ideas, assumptions and beliefs that propelled the Donners and Reeds on their epic, fatalistic journey have been spun into a tale that, 172 years later, has become more myth than truth. Wallis pulls apart the myth and provides an unflinching, engaging examination of this dark event in American history.

Nov 21, 2017

maitre d' on the restaurant p. a. : donner, party of ate, donner, party of ate.

Nov 02, 2017

This is a thoroughly researched history of the Donner Party disaster, but the first half really drags. I skimmed through some pages because there is just soooo much detail! I don't really need to know that someone was an Irish immigrant and who he married and what work he did, if he's never going to figure again in the history. To be frank, I found the first half of this book really dull reading.
It picks up quite a bit once everyone gets stuck in the mountains and I certainly learned much more about what the survivors did to survive at all. The use of actual interview material, or letters, added authenticity to the accounts.
If you can make it through the first dreadfully boring half of the book, the latter part becomes quite the page turner.

Oct 17, 2017

A fascinating topic (the doomed Donner Party) that's well-researched, but somewhat indifferently written. I didn't really like the cannibal parts.

Aug 28, 2017

The subject matter is extremely grim but the book is well-researched and -written. It's illustrative of the truism that a disaster is made up of lack of preparation, a concatenation of a myriad of small errors and mis-calculations and some bad luck. What happened at the end of the trek is well-known. The book explores and clearly sets out how the end rose out of the beginning.

Jul 08, 2017

If you love well written history backed up by solid research this is an author to read. The gory details are well known (the true ones and the exaggerated) but the story of their journey and how the families on the trail reacted as things got worse and worse is fascinating. The strength of some of the individuals (especially the women desperate to keep their children alive) is absorbing and heartbreaking.

Jul 02, 2017

Simon Worrall writes a very interesting article in the National Geographic based on his interview with the author Michael Wallis; Mr. Wallis's research including interviews with descendants of the Donner party; the political climate at the time; as well as the settling of the west known as Manifest Destiny. A book to go on my list for sure.

Jun 21, 2017

My review in a single sentence: The Best Land Under Heaven is a detailed, humanizing portrait of a doomed American migration that underlines the fragility of the human condition.

I, like most people, learned about the Donner Party from a textbook. The gruesome details of their fate are a byline in the narrative of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. In this book, Michael Wallis pulls back the layers of myth and exaggeration and tells the story of the Donner and Reed families. Once I spent some time with them and got to know their dreams and aspirations, each poor decision or stroke of bad luck filled me with dread rather than the derision I felt all those years ago in the classroom.

When their fate in the Sierra Nevada mountains became clear, I was not filled with macabre fascination but with great sorrow. The details of their survival that terrible winter are present in detail, made all the more powerful by the knowledge of who these people were. Their story is framed within the larger context of Manifest Destiny and the arrogant righteousness that blossomed in many westward pioneers.

The narrative that leads the reader on a journey from Illinois to California flows easily thanks to Mr. Wallis' writing style; I read the entire book in two sittings. One might expect such a historical accounting to be dry, but if you've read any of Michael's other books you know he weaves a wonderful tale. The research undertaken was extensive and it shows through the detail present across the pages.

It's a piece of American history, a showcase of frontier survival, and a powerful cautionary tale. Highly recommended.


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings

LibraryThing Series Information


Find it at CRRL

To Top