Truckee Reads author coming to town
Getting into the head of the Donner Party’s James Frazier Reed was no simple feat for James D. Houston.
Before writing the Truckee Reads book, “Snow Mountain Passage,” Houston had exclusively authored contemporary fiction novels, and trying to clearly represent a man who lived more than 150 years ago in a work of historical fiction presented a challenge.
“To make [the novel] readable and believable you have to get in their heads,” Houston said. “You’ve got to think, ‘What would a guy of [Reed’s] age (46) do in that time (1846)?’ You’ve got to be true to the period.”
Also, Houston researched the Donner Party and Reed’s travels through California for more than three years before sitting down to write “Snow Mountain Passage.”
“I was worried, because there are people who know a lot about the Donner Party in [the Tahoe area]. They know where every wagon was parked on what particular day. If you make one misstep, you’re going to get 100 e-mails from history buffs,” Houston said.
Houston’s research took him into libraries all over California to read letters and records on Reed and the Donner Party. He interviewed their descendents and followed the party’s trail throughout the West.
At one point, he had to call off the research and begin writing.
“You could spend your whole life at The Bancroft Library and looking at the microfiche, but that’s not going to get me anywhere,” he said.
Nonetheless, Houston’s research truly began 40 years ago when he heard through lore and neighborhood gossip that Patty Reed once inhabited his Santa Cruz home. The old Victorian had been abandoned since Patty’s son moved out years before.
“That’s what triggered it,” he said. “I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘The world needs another book about the Donner Party.'”
Houston’s familiarity with the Tahoe area also helped in constructing the novel – since 1983 he’s attended the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. Each summer he would drive over Donner Summit and think about the trials of the Reed family and others in the party.
He’s also visited the Alder Creek camp where some of the Donners camped, and he’s studied their trail to the east while at another conference in Ogden, Utah.
“I like to drive around the physical terrain,” said the author, whose previous novels exhibit the settings of the West.
Truckee reads Snow Mountain Passage
When Houston comes to Truckee on April 25 for Truckee Reads, he said he hopes to discuss the line between history and fiction, and the novel’s fictitious diary entries by Patty Reed.
“I know a lot of people are interested in the connection to the Reed family and how I became so intimate with Patty Reed,” he said.
In addition, Houston wants to talk about the less-told story of James Frazier Reed’s four-month journey through Northern California before heading back over the summit to rescue his family. Most books about the party’s ill-fated journey, he said, end at Donner Lake.
Since “Snow Mountain Passage” was published, Houston has received letters and correspondence from people with more leads and information on the Donner Party, including a letter from a descendent of the Donner family.
Although his novel will be the foundation for the discussion, he said he hopes dialogue will ensue between himself and the community.
“I don’t want to come in as a visiting expert,” he said. “I want to learn while I’m there.”
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