From Women Writers, Women’s Books:
“Snowd all night & snows yet rapidly. Great difficulty in getting wood. Offerd our prayers to God this Cherimass morning. The prospect is appalling but hope in God.”
—Patrick Breen, December 25, 1846
So wrote Donner Party survivor Patrick Breen as he and his family of nine holed up in a windowless cabin on the shores of Truckee Lake on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the harrowing winter of 1846-47. The Breens had left Independence, Missouri the previous May bound for a new life in California, wagons filled with supplies and hearts filled with hope. A deadly combination of weather extremes, uncharted geography, and poor decisions resulted in 81 men, women, and children becoming trapped for the winter just 60 miles shy of their destination near present-day Sacramento. Half of them would not survive.
In my second novel, Answer Creek, fictional character Ada Weeks joins the Breen family on the journey. In Chapter 24, I conjure the scene inside the cabin on Christmas Day.
Ada’s breath forms icy clouds with each exhale. She rearranges her cloak so her shoulders relax, and then shoves the garment down to cover her near-frozen feet. She wiggles her toes to make sure they are still attached. Her toenails need clipping, and she pulls on the corner of a nail to shorten it. She yanks so hard she draws blood, which she stanches with her sock. Ada hasn’t washed her socks in so long she’s grown immune to the stench. She makes a fist, first with her right hand, counts to ten, and releases. Then she repeats with her left. Her stomach rumbles with hunger. She holds her midsection to ease the pain. Her head aches. As Ada rubs her head, a clump of hair comes out in her hand.
The scene screams desolation and despair. And on Christmas.
Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books