The Plot: Skila Brown's 2016 To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party is a historical verse novel that explores the life and experiences of nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves, a real-life settler who traveled with her family, the Donner family, and several other families across the country to reach California in the 1840s. Brown bases her narrative on historical records and research to tell a particularly compelling story of a young woman's survival in a time of hardship, chaos, and ultimately horror. The nearly 300-page verse novel takes place over the course of one year, beginning in the spring of 1846 and ending in the spring of 1847. Mary Ann travels from Lacon, Illinois with her family which includes her mother, father, older married sister, three younger brothers, four younger sisters, and a hired teamster named John. Mary Ann is a quilter and a strong young woman who likes to speak her mind.
The Poetry: Brown's To Stay Alive is primarily comprised of free verse poems that make use of rich imagery, lyricism, and the space on the page, but the verse novel also includes a few concrete poems that take the shape of what they describe or allude to in the poem. For instance, the poem on page 3, "Father" is shaped like a sphere on the page and describes Mary Ann's father as "burning like the sun" and "itching" to leave on their journey. Likewise, the poem "Inside the Wagon" spreads single words across the space of the page drawing attention to the fact that riding inside the wagon is bumpy: "never still never / smooth / always bump shake rattle" (41). While these poems were interesting in terms of form and content, the poem that I found most moving and rhythmic was the final poem in the collection, "A New Quilt." This nine-page poem shows Brown's skill in the long lyric poem, something that I have yet to see many verse novelists for young readers do well. In "A New Quilt" Brown uses anaphora, lyricism, imagery, and a rhythmic line that mimics the work of quilting to tell the last bits of Mary Ann's narrative. The repeated refrains "I'm stitching / a new quilt" at the beginning of stanzas and "I stitch" justified to the right side of the page at the end of many lines become a place of meditation for the reader as she considers the ways that Mary Ann copes with her loss of many of her family members.
The Page: In addition to being divided into five sections that reflect the seasonal changes, Brown's verse novel also contains a variety of paratextual documents to aid the reader in understanding the historical time period and Brown's research process. The front papers include an article from The Lacon Home Journal announcing that a local family is headed to the west, as well as a two-page map spread that provides the path that Mary Ann's family followed. The end papers include an epilogue, an author's note, a photograph of the real Mary Ann Graves, a list of individuals who were part of the Donner party divided into families with their ages and survival status listed, and an acknowledgments section. Her website also includes an educational guide to pair with the verse novel and a variety of blog posts with more details about the Donner party.
I found Brown's To Stay Alive to be a surprisingly engaging narrative. While the subject matter (cannibalism) initially made me wary of the author's ability to tackle such a topic in a new way, Brown was able to skillfully and successfully weave Mary Ann's story together through her use of lyric poetry. To Say Alive was a page-turner. I give it four stars and highly recommend it.