Among the many harrowing tales of discovery and misadventure that originated during the great western migration of the 19th century, few are as legendary as the Donner Party, a stranded group of pioneers who turned to cannibalism for sustenance. In a new reimagining of the fateful journey, local author Duncan McGeary adds a supernatural edge to the grisly story in Led to the Slaughter: The Donner Party Werewolves. One might say that starving to death in the frozen Sierra Nevada mountains, abandoned by the strongest among them and forced to eat human flesh in order to survive might serve nicely as a complete vehicle for historical fiction. Not so, according to McGeary, owner of Pegasus Books in Bend, a cornucopia of graphic novels, sci-fi books and rare action figures. McGeary adds vicious, scheming lycanthropes to the mix, and creates a whole new spin on a story that has gone down in history as one of the most disturbing nuggets of Pacific Northwest pioneer lore.
In the autumn of 1846, almost 90 wagon train emigrants made the grave mistake of taking an unproven shortcut, and were unable to cross the snowy mountain passes into California. Mostly Midwestern farmers and tradesmen with little to no experience in the wild, they endured a nearly six-month ordeal. Much of their story has been lost, shrouded in mystery and the shame of 45 souls that survived who may (or may not) have resorted to cannibalism. Although no archaeological evidence exists to prove that the Donner Party ate the flesh of their fallen members, diary entries and first-hand accounts brought the presumed atrocities to national attention. Taking his cue from these historical records, McGeary frames the narrative of Led to the Slaughter with similar fictional accounts, told from the perspective of 13-year-old Virginia Reed, her family and companions.
The result is quite riveting. Brothers Jacob and George Donner, members of an ancient order of werewolves called the "Wolfenrout," scheme to organize the journey with the double-intention of hiding their true identities, and providing human provisions for the long journey west. While George advocates for a renewed effort to coexist with humans—prohibiting human prey and outlawing the creation of new werewolves without approval from the order—Jacob has other ideas, longing to give in to the inner beast. As the werewolves lead the unwitting humans farther along a path to disaster, young Virginia discovers their dastardly plans and vows to protect her family from the monsters, especially bloodthirsty Keseberg, a werewolf who takes a special interest in the girl. Through a series of journal entries, McGeary manages to weave together the actual human tragedy (including many near-accurate details of the historical journey) with the further threat of man-eating werewolves in a novel that presents an alternate version of the spine-chilling tale, sure to delight modern readers of fantasy and horror.
McGeary, who is the author of several other books in this genre, examines in this new title the difference between man and beast under the most horrific of circumstances. His protagonist, young Virginia, concludes, "Perhaps it isn't the form that matters, but what is inside it. We have been tested, and most of us have failed."
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