Review: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep

I tweeted this a while back, and then quickly realized if I wanted to tell lots of people about the Donner Party book I read in full detail that I could just write a blog post about it. Literally the reason I have a blog is to tell people about the books I’m reading.

I checked out “The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep” while I was at work because I’m a fan of anything related to the Oregon Trail, and I couldn’t resist after I read the book description. Plus, one of the pluses about working at a library is the ability to check books out for yourself easily, especially with library services limited to curbside during COVID (we don’t have to talk about how many books I brought home with me last week).

In 1846, a group of emigrants bound for California face a choice: continue on their planned route or take a shortcut into the wilderness. Eighty-nine of them opt for the untested trail, a decision that plunges them into danger and desperation and, finally, the unthinkable. From extraordinary poet and novelist Allan Wolf comes a riveting retelling of the ill-fated journey of the Donner party across the Sierra Nevadas during the winter of 1846-1847. Brilliantly narrated by multiple voices, including world-weary, taunting, and all-knowing Hunger itself, this novel-in-verse examines a notorious chapter in history from various perspectives, among them caravan leaders George Donner and James Reed, Donner’s scholarly wife, two Miwok Indian guides, the Reed children, a sixteen-year-old orphan, and even a pair of oxen. Comprehensive back matter includes an author’s note, select character biographies, statistics, a time line of events, and more. Unprecedented in its detail and sweep, this haunting epic raises stirring questions about moral ambiguity, hope and resilience, and hunger of all kinds.

Image and description sourced from Goodreads

This book description encapsulates so many of the good details that I enjoy about this book, so I’m going to hit them one by one and try and entice you into reading this fantastic YA Historical Fiction.

The Unique Perspectives

I’m a sucker for a novel in verse: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, Jason Reynolds’ The Long Way Down, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (in this case a verse memoir), Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. This is not to mention Allen Wolf’s The Watch that Ends the Night, a verse exploration of the Titanic from multiple perspectives that I was obsessed with in early high school.

It is only fitting that as I started reading this book, I was reminded of The Watch that Ends the Night, only to flip to the back flap author’s bio and realize that they had the same author! It’s no surprise that I was immediately hooked on The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep.

In The Watch that Ends the Night, the perspective that Wolf includes that makes the book for me is that of the iceberg. Here, Wolf includes not only perspectives from a variety of adults and children in the Donner Party, but also a pair of oxen and Hunger.

The perspective of Hunger makes this such an interesting exploration of the Donner Party.

And this, dear reader, is how otherwise civilized people are driven to consume the flesh of their dead. In fact, it is easy….So do not judge them, lest you suffer a similar fate. Instead, let us celebrate that small, yet mighty spark of life. That half-full bucket waiting in the depths of the well. That last bean lingering at the bottom of an empty barrel. Do not judge them. Let them eat.

-Hunger, p. 271

Using prose sections written in the voice of Hunger, Wolfe is able to explain and explore the actions of the Donner Party throughout their journey in a way that is removed from human emotion. Having these sections helps keep the reader removed from the emotions of the characters at key moments where being in a first-person narrative could be overwhelming.

The Well Fleshed Out Characters

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep strikes a balance in tone that is horrifying, page-turning, and humanizing. The perspectives that Wolf employ contributes to that, but those perspectives only succeed because the characters themselves are well fleshed out.

We learn about the characters not only through their individual perspectives, but also through what we see of them through the eyes of other characters. Wolf’s characterization is based in historical fact, and this is a success of a historical fiction novel in that it really does put the reader in the head of historical figures who are not known as individuals, but rather known only as part of a larger tragedy.

The Historical Backmatter

The historicity of this novel in verse is astounding. The full scope of the depth of historical research that Wolf did is made evident in the back matter. This is some of the best back matter I’ve ever seen in a YA historical fiction novel. If I love this book, I loved it even more after reading the backmatter.

Wolf includes statistical breakdowns of the Donner Party such as how many men, women, and children were part of the party and how many died, the numbers saved by the relief party, and the number of people eaten. There were select biographies, discussions of what Wolf made up for the sake of the novel and what historical material he consulted. There was also a great bibliography of materials related to the Donner Party including books, books specifically for young readers, and internet sources. The back matter alone would have made this book worth it, but as it was, it’s the cherry on top of a great book!

Donner Party Books People Have Recommended to Me on Twitter.

Since I tweeted about this book, multiple people have made some recommendations of other Donner Party books. I thought I’d share them with you here!

  • The Hunger by Alma Katsu
  • To Stay Alive by Skila Brown
  • The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

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