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The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, by Michael Wallis, Liveright, New York, 2017, $27.95

The Donner Party has long been part of Western mythology—and the butt of tasteless (pun intended) jokes. But Michael Wallis’ dogged research cuts away the myths and tracks down the truth about what led the doomed wagon train to the Sierra Madre in 1846–47. The author (see Interview) focuses on the era of Manifest Destiny and how that doctrine had a role in the tragedy.

Starting in Illinois, Wallis follows the wagon train on its way to Independence, Mo., on the California Trail. He then relates the stumbling, bickering, hardships, mistakes—even killings—that struck the party long before it became stranded in the mountains, where several members consumed the flesh of dead companions to survive. Wallis even puts the cannibalism into context. “Survival calls for commitment,” he writes. “Survival was about living. To survive, one must live.”

Wallis’ book is solid, superbly related history and should become the definitive account of the Donner tragedy.