The Year of Decision

Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942)

The Year of decision: 1846This book took a long time to read. It’s very well written—I mean, DeVoto is pretty much the Dean of western historical writing—but at times I found his style a distractingly stylish. Other times, I got lost in detail. I found I had to take it in small chunks or it just became a swirl of factoids and information that I was afraid of not getting if I took in too much at one time. (Could be it’s a sign of age, or at least my waning ability to concentrate. Or maybe I should just blame my lack of focus on Covid-19 . . . )

The structure of the book proceeds chronologically through 1846 (cheating at times to step backward and forward to the adjacent years). Within that chronological order, DeVoto follows the strands of a half-dozen or so narratives: The lead up and execution of our war with Mexico; a few different emigrant journeys across the continent; Francis Parkman’s experiences in the west; Frémont’s adventures in California; the Donner tragedy (in exhaustive and graphic detail); Mormon persecution and the start of their exodus to Salt Lake City; and a few others I’m forgetting right now.

The book has nothing to do directly with the Pony Express, which wasn’t even a gleam in Russell’s eye for another dozen years. But it is filled with an unbelievable amount of detail and really is a tour de force of wrangling so many threads into one coherent work. Well worth reading, especially if you can absorb all it has to offer.

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