Take one part horrific historical events, one part irreverent humour, and one part expressive and striking illustrations; shake well; and get ready to devour (pardon the pun) this third offering in the series of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Nathan Hale’s research shines through in this rendering of the tragedy of the pioneer families who attempted, against all recommendations, to traverse the Sierra Nevada Mountains on their way to California in 1846. The grim story is made palatable by Hale’s inclusion of an omniscient narrator, the historical Nathan Hale, spinning the tale to two buffoons in order to delay his own grim and inevitable end. This Nathan Hale can see into the future and can not only foretell the future of the ill-advised members of the Donner party, but understands the ambitions and desires that push them to make the ghastly decisions that have fascinated historians and history buffs for over a century.
While the story is historically faithful, the focus on the Reed family, who all survive the experience, may help young readers to distance themselves from the heartbreak of all the other deaths. The addition of the hungry and animal-loving hangman listening to the recounting of the story equally aids in providing this distance. The appearance of other historical figures, such as a young Abraham Lincoln, and events such as the Mexican-American War, will place the pioneer trek in historical context for the reader.
The contemporary Nathan Hale relates the story through a wide variety of mainly small panels rendered in grey and greyish-green tones. These panels, often crammed with dialogue but still comprehensible, alternate with long narrow panels depicting the expanse of the landscape and the journey that was made. Individual characters, of which there are seemingly multitudes, are easy to differentiate through the artwork, facial expressions, and speech patterns. Hale frequently interrupts the flow of the story with factual information, such as the names and ages of the participants in their several attempts to find aid. The progress of the journey is effectively illustrated and mapped with landmarks for ease of comprehension of the difficulties and complexity of the journey and the ensuing disasters. Numerous references are made throughout the graphic novel to the charges of cannibalism and the mental states of the various members by the narrator and other members of the Donner party. Hale pays careful attention to detail but also to the humanity (and callousness) manifested by the trials and tribulations of the various members. The grim truth is not sugar-coated, nor is it glorified in Hale’s telling. Ironically, he offers the easily upset reader a shortcut to bypass the more horrific recounting of the various deaths (but I imagine that most readers will, unlike James Reed, decide to stick with the total pathway that is offered to them).
Supplementary material includes a double-page chart of all of the members of the party, their ages in 1846, and whether they survived or died and their manner of death. This is followed by a one-page story of the one young survivor who died from overeating, as well as a page of photographs and information about several of the surviving members, such as the Reed family, Lewis Keseberg (who was often painted by the media as a cannibal), and Lansford Hastings, whose cut-off instructions were the impetus for so much of the calamity. Also provided is a bibliography of research material on the Donner Party, an avenue to address questions and corrections to the way the story had been told, and a humorously rendered version of the pets in the tale related by the Hangman. The hazard level provided on the back cover is blue (tragic) for inclusion of tuberculosis, hypothermia, starvation, accidental shooting, non-accidental shooting, stabbing, cannibalism, bears, and the eating of well-loved pets. Does this not sound like a recipe to appeal to most middle-school readers?