Wednesday: What I’m Reading

On Wednesdays, I vow to inconsistently list some good books I’ve recently read.

The Light Fantastic

The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs is a YA novel that looks hard at what it’s like to be a teen in the US. We are all hurting; we are all struggling to find the light. It’s a powerful story with distinct characters that addresses stereotypes and turns them inside out. This is a must-read.

Writing Heroes

Who are your writing heroes?

I spent the summer re-reading a lot of my favorite books and thinking about who my writing heroes are and what it is I admire about them. One of the reasons for this is that a few months ago I won something in an online charity auction.

Displaying cloths.jpg

These are Dr. Who washcloths. I am not a Dr. Who fan. But. These washcloths were knitted by none other than Kristin Cashore. I am a HUGE Kristin Cashore fan. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to send her an email with my address, to open up my mailbox and have something in there from her. My writing hero.

Shortly after my first novel came out, I was signing books at an author fair, and I looked down the line and saw none other than George Ella Lyon signing books too. George Ella Lyon is a poet and writer from Kentucky, just like me. We even went to the same college – although a few years apart. I’ve always been a big fan of her poetry. Her poem “Where I’m From” inspired the opening poem in Caminar in fact. I somehow screwed up the courage to walk over to her and tell her this, showing her my poem and asking her to sign my beat-up copy of her book, that I happened to have with me.

It is a little surreal to meet our writing heroes.

Libba Bray sat in a talk I gave in grad school—one in which I was quoting her book. I got to chat with her later and I remember feeling so completely in awe of just how kind she was, how humble, how seemingly unaware she was of her heroic status.

Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you read over and over again? Who would you feel a little tongue-tied to meet in person?

Kristin Cashore is my writing hero. She builds rich, interesting worlds, and fills them with strong, unconventional characters.

Rainbow Rowell is my writing hero. She writes lines that stab me in the gut and make me wonder if she’s writing her books just for me. Don’t you love when a book speaks to you that way?

Don Calame is my writing hero because his books are funny. So, so, so funny. Laugh out loud funny. Boys-really-talk-like-that funny.

Kwame Alexander? The perfect blend of exquisite poetry and action on the page.
David Levithan? He takes all the rules of stories and throws them out the window.
Meg Medina? Those descriptions! Libba Bray? Perfect Satire! Ruta Sepetys? Queen of opening lines.

I can’t get enough of these writers. I read a lot of books, but it isn’t often I want to reread a story. Even one I like. Yet somehow, a few authors can make me spend an entire summer doing just that. Rereading all the worlds they’ve built, the characters they’ve imagined, the stories they’ve carefully crafted.

These are my writing heroes. Who are yours?

Audiobook winner!

Last weekend, I signed copies of my books at the lovely Books by the Bank festival. And one lucky visitor at my table is the winner of a free audiobook today.

<Drumroll please>


Paige Wilson! Paige, I’ll be in touch to get your mailing info. Thanks to everyone who entered!

The Missing Money

Franklin Graves sold his Illinois cabin and land before setting off west with his family in 1846. He was paid in a collection of coins from various countries. (This was common then; the United States was still a young country and not a lot of minted money to go around.) He carefully hid this money in a box nailed to the underneath part of one his wagons. The plan was that it would purchase the land and materials for a new home in sunny California.

Plans went awry.

We know Mrs. Graves had those coins on her person when she set out with the second relief group on March 3, 1847. She also had her four youngest children. And so much snow to walk through and over. Even with the help of the rescuers, she couldn’t do it. And so, along the way, she buried the coins in a secret location with the idea that she’d come back for them in the spring.

That, of course, wouldn’t be possible.

I imagine that spring, the oldest Graves children, Mary Ann included, were desparate to know where that money was buried. Here they were, seven remaining children left, all now orphaned, without a penny to their names. Yes, I feel sure Mary Ann wanted to get her hands on those coins.

But they weren’t found.

Until – at least – 1891. 44 years after she buried them, a man uncovered some coins around the lake that were later identified as the Graves’ family coins. Some sources say the Graves descendants recognized bite marks on some of the coins that had been used for teething relief for the baby. There are conflicting accounts as to what happened to the coins, but it appears at least some of them were returned to Mary Ann and her siblings.

You can read a newspaper account here.
And the following comes from the Donner Party Diary online site.


Wednesday, March 3, 1847

James Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief: “3 Thurs left Camp early traveled on the lake 2 miles an encamped under the mountain made this day about 4 miles, nothing of interest occd.”
Apparently unknown to Reed, or not considered of interest, an event occurred as told by McGlashan in 1880: “At the camping-ground, near the upper end of Donner Lake, one of the relief party jokingly proposed to another to play a game of euchre to see who should have Mrs. Graves’ money. The next morning, Mrs. Graves remained behind when the party started, and concealed her money. All that is known is, that she buried it behind a large rock on the north side of Donner Lake. So far as is known, this money has never been recovered, but still lies hidden where it was placed by Mrs. Graves.” On May 14, 1891 Edward Reynolds, a miner from Sierra Valley, found some silver coins while prospecting on the north shore of the lake. Reynolds, McGlashan and Amos Lane searched the area and recovered 191 coins of various nationalities and denominations less than 30 feet from the large rock long reputed to be the site of the cache.

Patrick Breen


Not a lot in the way of controversy is often said about Patrick Breen. His claim to fame is that he maintained the only diary we have of the Donner Party’s time at the lake. I’ve never heard anyone really categorize him as a villain or a hero. But he was always someone who left me a little…unsettled. Here’s what we know about him.
1. 100% of his family survived. That’s no small accomplishment. Of the large family groups traveling, only the Breens and the Reeds had this complete survival rate.
2. He was pious. You only have to read his journal to see that.
3. When the snow fell while the party was on the mountain, and they were forced to turn around and go back down to the valley below, somehow Patrick Breen and his family ended up taking the one cabin that already stood for shelter. (It was built by a party the year before when they were forced to leave their supplies and wagons behind with a teenager named Moses Schallenberger to watch over for the winter before they’d return in the spring to retrieve them.) So the Donner Party gets back down the mountain and the Breens take the cabin that’s already built while everyone else has to start from scratch. How was that decided? Why did Patrick Breen get it? Was that an advantage for the Breens? Maybe he was very busy helping other families with their shelters…maybe there was no advantage, I don’t know. It just feels…advantageous, doesn’t it?
4. He seemed to be under the radar, frankly. Not taking on a leadership role like James Reed or Franklin Graves or George Donner. And maybe in the end, that’s what saved Patrick Breen. Living under the radar with no controversy. It seems to be a strategy on reality survivor tv shows, right?
5. His diary—while it paints a picture of him being helpful, pious, hard-working, impartial to others’ squabbles…we have to remind ourselves that he wrote it. And at some point, he passed it on to someone else to have and read. Meaning he approved of people reading it. And why wouldn’t he? There’s no record of him hiding food from others that he wasn’t sharing or…
6. He mentions in his diary that one day a Native American came by the camp and shared with him some roots and other edibles. Did Breen share them with others? I don’t think so. And we can’t blame him for this, no doubt. But once again, I have to wonder how much of an advantage this cabin gave him. If it was closest to a path traveled by Native people who might have offered up a little help that only the Breens received…

Patrick Breen. Another complicated, mysterious character.

James Reed

Next up in our Heroes & Villains series: James Reed.



More often than not, Reed is painted as a villain. There are some justifiable reasons for this. I’m going to list some of them below. But as you’ll see—I think he’s another complicated character. We just can’t put him in a good guy/bad guy box.

He was rich. It is so easy to hate Montgomery Burns, isn’t it? But can we blame Reed for having a double decker “palace car” wagon especially made? Yes, it was larger and more obnoxious than everyone else’s. It needed double the oxen to pull it. (And this likely inconvenienced others as the group would often take turns helping each wagon over hills and the like.) But remember that his very ill mother-in-law started out the trip with them—confined to her bed. (She died along the way.) Can we fault him for wanting her to be comfortable?

He killed John Snyder. True story. Not looking good for James Reed. But we don’t have a clear accounting of what happened in this argument. Was John beating Reed’s oxen? John had been characterized as having a quick temper. And the notion that Mrs. Reed might have intervened, Snyder striking her in the process, does make the idea of Mr. Reed using a knife to defend himself easier to understand…

What’s clear is that he wasn’t well-liked among the party, though it’s hard to parse out how much of that might have been jealousy.

I think the clearest strike against him might be how long it took him to return for his family after he was banished. I know he was cold, starved, ill, sick, and needed time to heal. I also know he couldn’t find men to recruit to go with him because of the war with Mexico. But while he was waiting for all this, he managed to go fight a bit in that war and even buy some land for his family while he was there.

This is just difficult to swallow.

Again, I think James Reed is an example of a character who is neither villain nor hero. Just a person like all of us. Trying to do what he thought best for himself and his family.

William Eddy

When we stayed at Donner Lake, we rented a cabin, just off Eddy Avenue.

I had to groan.

The next day at the state park, I got to geek out a little with a really kind volunteer named Greg about the gun they have on display.


This is supposedly the actual gun—owned by William Foster—used to kill a bear, a deer, and 2 Indian guides.
(Pause the story here. I stared at that gun for ages. Just totally in awe that there it was.)

Anyway, I was asking Greg how they acquired it and in his answer he said, “You know, this was the gun Foster used to kill Luis and Salvador.” (I noticed they’d left that off the museum info card. Too gruesome for school groups maybe?)

And I said, “Well. According to Eddy.”

Then we had a friendly chat about primary sources, etc. in which I geeked out so hard my kids fled the building.

But here’s the thing. People ask a lot Who are the heroes and villains in the Donner Party story. And that’s such a complicated question.

Let’s take William Eddy as an example. He’s often painted hero-like. In many accounts of the Donner Party, it’s Eddy who chastises Keseburg for turning out Hardcoop, Eddy who wants to go back to look for him, Eddy who builds his fire high for Hardcoop to see. Eddy who has control of Foster’s gun for the duration of the trip because even Foster knows Eddy is the better shot. Eddy who kills a bear and also ducks in the woods for food. Eddy who later kills a deer when the snowshoers are trekking out. Eddy who told Luis and Salvador to run because the rest of the group were talking about killing them for food. Foster who fired the shots that killed them both.

But if you dig deep into the primary sources that the earliest of Donner Party authors used, you will see that the Donner Party survivor who gave the most interviews and had the most to say about this whole ordeal was…William Eddy.

And you’ll also see that other Donner Party members called him “Lyin’ Eddy.” For more on this, read what Kristin Johnson sums up here.

I like to think of William Eddy as the guy in the group at the bar who’s talking the loudest, embellishing the stories a bit, making for a good narration, even if it’s not exactly accurate.
Even if I’m wrong about his persona (and I very well may be—I really have no idea), the fact is most people err on the side of humility when recounting a story—downplay the role of hero I might have played myself and emphasize the actions of others.

Eddy didn’t do that.

That fact plus the way others spoke about him has always left me with the impression that other people might have had a bigger role in some of these “heroic” acts. It’s why in To Stay Alive you’ll see I’ve let Mary Ann’s dad and brother-in-law build up the fire for Hardcoop, and Mary Ann herself warns Luis and Salvador. And Eddy pulls the trigger that killed them. He was the better shot, you know. Or so he said.

I don’t see William Eddy as a hero or a villain. I see him as a complicated character—like all the people who were part of the group. Like all of us too.