One of our recommended books is The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep by Allan Wolf


Voices from the Donner Party

In powerful, vivid verse, the master behind The Watch That Ends the Night recounts one of history’s most harrowing—and chilling—tales of survival.

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.

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In powerful, vivid verse, the master behind The Watch That Ends the Night recounts one of history’s most harrowing—and chilling—tales of survival.

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.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • September 2020
  • 416 Pages
  • 9780763663247

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About Allan Wolf

Allan Wolf is the author of The Snow Fell Three Graves DeepAllan Wolf is an acclaimed poet and storyteller. Along with his two other historical verse novels, The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic and New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, he is the author of The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts and the young adult novels Who Killed Christopher Goodman? and Zane’s Trace. Allan Wolf lives in Asheville, North Carolina.


“In a stroke of brilliance, Hunger serves as a Greek chorus throughout the book. The hunger for food becomes the characters’ primary focus once the expedition goes figuratively south. But this narrative device also cleverly speaks to the many motivations of various Donner party members, including hunger for land, prestige, love, warmth and closeness to God. Although the surviving members of the group are eventually rescued, nothing is tied up with a neat and tidy bow. To his credit, Wolf does not sensationalize this story’s numerous tragedies, nor spare the reader illuminating details. The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep is historical fiction at its very best.” —BookPage (starred review)

“Wolf applies the same narrative treatment he expertly deployed in The Watch That Ends the Night (2011) to another infamous tragedy, that of the Donner Party…Wolf stokes empathy in the reader for these most unfortunate travelers, and those whose fascination is also sparked will want to dig into the book’s back matter, which is packed with historical notes, biographies, stats, a time line, and resources on the Donner Party. Another bone-chilling, unshakable success by Wolf.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Novelist-poet Wolf (The Watch that Ends the Night), using pacing that mimics the travelers’ ratcheting plight, crafts a vivid story that humanizes the complicated episode it relates…Acknowledging the white presumptuousness of manifest destiny, Wolf honors the Miwok and their land, on which the Donner Party camped, as well as many of the tribal nations scarred by such wagon trips. Thoughtfully designed, ample white space evokes the bleakness of that interminable winter…An impressive, albeit woeful, slice of American history that older middle grade readers will sink their teeth into.—Shelf Awareness for Readers (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. The author uses an unusual device to tell the story: Hunger is the narrator. What did you think of this? Did it work for you?

2. Occasionally, Wolf turns to rhymed verse for his narrative (see page 27, “Upon Independence Rock,” for the first instance). Other passages are written in a free-verse style, using non-rhyming everyday language, almost like a monologue in a play. The words of Hunger are written in standard prose. What do you notice about these three different styles? How does Wolf use these forms to affect the reader in different ways?

3. If you had been confronted with the choice of following the Hastings Cutoff or the older established road, knowing just what our pioneers were told, which one would you have been likely to take?

4. On page 33, Hunger says, “Curiosity is just a variety of hunger. Hunger is just a variety of hope.” What do you think these statements mean?

5. One of the saddest scenes that Wolf describes is when the party is crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert and Virginia’s pony becomes terribly weak and cannot continue (page 83). Virginia’s mother slaps her hand for giving the pony water when there is none to waste. And then they leave the pony behind, lying on the hard white earth, watching as they disappear into the distance. What were their choices here? Did they make the best one?

6. When the Donner Party encounters Native Americans, we learn how the pioneers viewed the native population. On page 96, Hunger says, “Just as they are weighed down by their many possessions, they are weighed down by their sense of entitlement. Had the white strangers not looked upon them with such disdain, the Shoshone might have offered directions, six days back, to an easy pass at the northern end of the range that leads straight to Mary’s River and the established California Trail.” What does sense of entitlement mean? Why do the white men feel that they are entitled? How does it affect their trip and their lives?

7. Two young men of the Miwok people, Salvador and Luis, “the Savior and the Slave,” leave Sutter’s Fort to help out the Donner Party. What kind of men are they? What do they think about the white people they are traveling with? Do they become fully integrated with the group?

8. When Reed is at Sutter’s Fort, he confesses to Sutter that he had killed a man because he wanted Sutter to know the truth. Sutter says, “Let me tell you what I know about The Truth, Reed. The Truth . . . is entirely in the telling” (page 171). What does this mean? Do you agree with what Sutter says?

9. Tamzene Donner cherished the memory of her first husband, Tully, not truly letting George Donner, her second one, into her heart. What changed to cause her to risk her own life to be with him when he was dying?

10. Can you imagine a situation in which you would eat a fellow human being? Is it too horrifying to even contemplate, or does it just make sense when you are dying of hunger?



Hunger Speaks


None of this is my fault.

If you are looking to blame someone or something, then look somewhere else. Yes, I am Hunger. And in this story I am everywhere. I am in every stomach pang and every heartbeat. I am in every want. I am in every desire. Every dream and ambition. Even hope. For hope is born of Hunger. Even in the midst of the most sumptuous meal, I am there between bites. Hunger and abundance are constant companions. Two oxen connected by a common yoke.

But do not blame me for anything that happens in these pages. A single cell divides into two cells because it craves more. The unborn babe hungers unconsciously for consciousness. The soul hungers to become flesh — a wagon of blood and bone on which to ride. We cry so we might breathe. We open our eyes so we might see. We open a book so we might read. We read so we might know.

But do not blame me. I would not be speaking to you now if you did not hunger to know how the story unfolds. It is because of you, and your need, that I exist at all.

I have nothing invested. I am only Hunger. And Hunger has no choice. Just as the river has no choice but to flow and freeze. Just as the snow has no choice but to fall. And fall it will. But neither the river nor the snow have anything invested. They do not care. And neither do I.

Hunger does not make choices. Only humans can do that. So do not blame me. Do not blame Hunger. I am merely here to tell the tale.


Patty Reed – The Angel
On the Oregon Trail

Dear God,

I know I ought not pray in the middle of a sermon,
but I reckon it’s all right if a tiny prayer leaks out just a little.
This preacher man has got it all figured out.
I guess he must know you personally.
Now, God, you know that I was with Grandma Keyes when she died.
She gave me a lock of her hair and a pincushion.
And best of all, she gave me her tiny dolly named Angel.
“A dolly named Angel for an angel named Patty,” she told me.
“I’ve had Angel since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” she said.
I said, “I should be crying, but I cain’t make the tears.”
“That’s ’cause you’re special, Patty Reed,” she said.
“And you know I’m a-goin’ to a better place than this.
So if you ever feel like cryin’, you just look at little Angel instead.
And save your precious tears for more important things.”
Then she up and died, but I guess, by now, you know that.




A hawk flies by overhead. Its shadow crosses the hatless heads of the funeral goers below. The fleeting shadow draws a line to a frock-coated preacher raising a Bible, eyes closed, face upward, as if speaking to the clouds.

Today our hearts hunger. A good woman is gone.
But as we weep we must rejoice in our faith
that the soul of Sarah Keyes now feasts with the Lord.

 Listening to the preacher but catching few words is the man they call Old Hardcoop, standing by the open grave wringing his hat in his hands. A cutler by trade, he hired on, back in Independence, to work for a stone-faced German named Ludwig Keseberg. The small balding man in the blue satin waistcoat and dusty trousers is still winded from helping to dig the grave. Not his job, but he tries to be useful.

The deceased, a Mrs. Keyes, was a neighbor of George Donner from Springfield, Illinois. Old Hardcoop had never laid eyes on her, confined as she was to a feather bed in the Reed family wagon. Mrs. Keyes was practical enough to die while the wagon train was already in a forced camp, halted on the swollen banks of the Big Blue River so the travelers could build a raft to ferry their wagons across.

The men were already felling and hollowing trees for the raft, so it was easy enough to split the boards for a cottonwood coffin to hold Mrs. Keyes’s feather-light remains. An Englishman named Denton has shaped a tombstone and chiseled into it the following:

Mrs. Sarah Keyes

Died May 29, 1846

Aged 70

The entire camp has ceased its labors out of respect. Closest to the waiting grave is the nearest kin, the Reeds. In life Mrs. Keyes had been the grand matron of the Reed family. Her son-in-law, the tall Mr. James Reed, comforts his sobbing wife, Margret. Next to them, holding hands, stand Eliza and Baylis Williams, the Reeds’ household help. Eliza, an excellent cook, is deaf, and her brother Baylis, an albino, is nearly blind.

In front of Mr. and Mrs. Reed fidget their four children. The two Reed boys are busy teasing the little family dog, Cash. The girls, eight-year-old Patty and twelve-year-old Virginia, are standing with their arms folded tightly across their white pinafores. With Grandma Keyes gone, Virginia fears she will be expected to look after the whole brood herself. Her face casts out daggers in all directions.

For Sarah Keyes has gone to Jesus.
And Jesus is the bread of life.

Thirteen-year-old, redheaded Eddie Breen has fallen asleep on his feet. His redheaded mother, Mrs. Breen, holding a baby in one arm, flicks Eddie’s ear with her free hand. When he wakes with a gasp, the five other redheaded Breen boys snicker. Redheaded Mr. Breen shushes them all. Mr. Breen is a man of God and wants to hear the sermon. Eddie nods off again.

Coughing slightly, standing next to Mr. Breen, is Jacob Donner, sickly and stick thin. And on Jacob’s arm is his morose wife, Elizabeth — known to most as Aunt Betsy. Jacob Donner is the younger brother to George Donner, who, as I said, was a neighbor to the Reeds back in Springfield. The Donner brothers have a dozen children between them of various shapes and sizes. Standing dry-eyed and easy beside George Donner is his wife, Tamzene, barely five feet tall, barely ninety pounds. Mrs. Tamzene Donner, a retired schoolteacher and amateur botanist, is full of great ambition. She has a deep, insatiable hunger for knowledge. And she is as large in personality as she is small in body.

In the vernacular of the day, Mrs. Tamzene Donner is ten pounds of shot in a five-pound cannon.


Text copyright © 2020 by Allan Wolf