The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party

Written by Allan Wolf
Review by David Drum

Allan Wolf’s fascinating historical novel-in-verse graphically retells the story of the Donner Party using the voices of actual characters who lived or died in the snow.

Similar in form to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the book is a collection of short free-verse poems. While Masters portrayed daily life in a small Illinois town, Wolf takes readers through a year of shared horror and suffering in the winter of 1846-47.

The Donner party was a wagon train of 89 people, about half of them children, struggling to cross the Sierra Mountains into California. Trapped by an early winter, almost half the party died of exposure and starvation as men and women ate their dead and sometimes killed to stay alive in the accumulating snow.

Using edited excerpts from letters written by his characters and plausible incidents based on his own research, Wolf’s monologues expose the emotional heart of this tragic expedition.

The book doesn’t shortchange the horror, but it has moments of poignant beauty. It is easy to read and follow, despite the use of what seems like dozens of individualized voices. The reader has the sense of traveling across the western United States with several families and into the mountains as murder, abandonment, brutality, betrayal, love and more occur along the way.

An invented figure Wolf calls “Hunger” appears periodically to provide an overview of events. Particularly effective is a scattershot poetic technique Wolf uses to depict falling snow and the people who die in it, which gives the reader a sense of accumulating tragedy through time.