Friday, June 11, 2021

Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (William Morrow, 2009)

Sometimes entrepreneurial ventures go sideways or — God forbid — south.

Among the people in what made up the Donner party of emigrants to California in 1846 were businessmen, tradesmen, and farmers, all of whom shared the dream of making it big. Most could have stayed where they were and done well enough in life. Just like many entrepreneurs, they were all driven by a desire to build something bigger in the temperate valleys beyond the Sierra Nevada mountains, so they liquidated their assets and set their sights on new lives in the West.

After a series of bad decisions and just plain bad luck, the party found itself stranded in the midst of those mountains, buffeted by extreme snowstorms and unusually cold weather. Some continued to struggle against nature to get over the mountains, others dug in for the winter, but sooner or later exhaustion and the specter of starvation led to otherwise unimaginable consequences in this well-known story.

The few who survived the ordeal did attain a fair amount of success and wealth as Californians, but for the most part they never overcame the psychic wounds of this experience.

I’m not saying The Indifferent Stars Above presents a parable from which entrepreneurs can draw valuable life lessons, although the story does speak to the value of careful planning and performing proper diligence (maybe even with the assistance of your skilled lawyer…) before choosing a path. Instead, as I read this book during the depths of the pandemic, I was reminded of the resilience of the human spirit — and that, as frightening and trying as things were at that moment, at least I wasn’t stranded on a mountain in a blizzard with nothing to eat.

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