Wallis has delved into an extraordinary mass of original material, documents, diaries, accounts and letters, as well as new sources apparently not available to previous authors, and produced not only a definitive account of the Donner tragedy, but also a book so gripping it can scarcely be put down ... With a keen eye for the particulars, Wallis has done a superb job sifting through lurid tabloid moralizing and unreliable accounts to explore the complex truths of human beings pushed to the absolute limits of existence.
A cautionary tale at the time, it becomes in Michael Wallis’s thorough and persuasive new telling, The Best Land Under Heaven, emblematic of the more shadowy aspects of Manifest Destiny ... A Faustian sense of overreach permeates Wallis’s narrative as the migrants brag of 'killing more buffalo than we can [eat].' Such are the spoils of Manifest Destiny ... Horrifying as it is, this is also a story of incredible perseverance and heroism.
...a slow-paced but still engaging account of the doomed journey, highlighting what he sees as its link to the ideology behind westward expansion ... Mr. Wallis tells the story well and paints interesting portraits of the characters to the extent allowed by the historical record. One minor problem is the book’s occasional purple prose ... A more troubling matter stems from Mr. Wallis’s effort to give the book a Big Historical Idea—a tricky task, since the disaster had no discernible effect on history, least of all on California migration. The idea he settles on is a tortured parallel between the Donner Party and Manifest Destiny.
His tale moves at the pace of the settlers’ covered wagons plodding across the prairies. If Wallis’ intense research turned up a detail, you can bet that it made its way into his book. His index lists 338 names, most of them belonging to obscure people. Readers will struggle to keep them straight ... Wallis’ research produces some interesting trivia ... This long book may find some readers in central Illinois among those who have a Donner party relative in the family tree. The rest of us will find it far from light summer reading.
Although the Donner Party has attracted attention over the years and has achieved a certain macabre fascination in Western lore, Wallis succeeds in offering new documentary evidence as well as an absorbing narrative ... Solid Western history that enhances the understanding of a tragic tale by highlighting the strong human dimension through the accounts of participants before, during, and after the expedition.
Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism ... Wallis effectively mixes survivors' accounts, trip diaries, and other contemporary sources, delving deep into the backgrounds and dynamics of the multiple families involved in the four-months-long winter wilderness encampment ... The Donner Party's struggles and determination continue to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion.