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May 10th, 2017 | Posted by etownsend in 2017-2018 | High School | 2017-2018 High School | April

To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party by Skila Brown. Candlewick Press, 2016

A novel in verse in the voice of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves tells of her family’s journey west by wagon in 1846. They eventually join another group that includes the Donner family. The travelers reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range late and the snows come early, stranding them in the mountains. With food scarce, Mary Ann, her father, and her older sister are part of a smaller group that attempts the pass, hoping to send back help for the others. They end up lost in a storm. Mary Ann’s father, a driving force of optimism early on in the journey, a voice of pragmatism later, is one of the first to die. There is an absolute lack of sensationalism in this moving account of the Donner Party, and the grim decision to eat those who died. Mary Ann’s voice stitches a story of small, compelling details, creating a vivid sense of people, time, and place. And she describes the desperation from hunger and malnutrition that turn an unbearable, unthinkable choice into one that becomes numbly inevitable for anyone hoping to survive. An author’s note tells more about the Donner Party’s journey, and Mary Ann’s life after she and other survivors were rescued.  © Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Start some conversation with these discussion prompts:

  1. When faced with life or death situations, how is the humanity of the characters in the book challenged? How does that affect them later in life?
  2. Discuss how death is portrayed in To Stay Alive. What do you think of this portrayal?
  3. What experiences lead to the growth of the characters in To Stay Alive?

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