The Donner Party Revisited: A Review of “Old Bones” by Preston & Child

Margaret the Word Witch
3 min readMay 9, 2020


The story of the Donner Party has been made infamous in stories of starvation and cannibalism, sensationalized through the press of the 1840s. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have used this tragedy as a vehicle for a present-day thriller.

Cover art borrowed from Amazon

Dr. Nora Kelly’s first appearance was in Thunderhead in 1999 (currently available in paperback from Warner Books). After the death of her husband, she proceeded to bury herself in her archaeological work, only emerging for her dog and her younger brother Skip. She and the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute are approached by Clive Benton, a historian and descendant of a survivor of the Donner Party. He brings a rare historical find and a new prospect: Tamsen Donner’s diary and a possible location of a Lost Camp that also fell into cannibalism and madness. In lieu of waiting for grants and private funding, Clive also offers the possibility of gold coins someone brought with them that would equal $20 million today.

Meanwhile, newly-minted FBI agent Corinne “Corrie” Swanson investigates a series of grave robberies, a live kidnapping, and a present-day murder. The crimes have one commonality: ancestry with a member of the Lost Camp. Corrie is still in her first six months on the job, being mentored and shadowed (or “ghosted”) by Supervisory Special Agent Morwood. She is forced to find and tread the fine line between her training and her instincts; a balance between the Special Agent and the foul-mouthed Goth teenager from Medicine Creek, Kansas. Special Agent Pendergast also makes a cameo appearance, making Nora and Corrie realize just how much they have in common, despite their initial prickly introduction.

While the Lost Camp itself is fictional, research on the Donner Party itself is accurate, from the snowstorm to their stranding in the California mountains to the rescue and recovery of the survivors. When going into the particulars of an archaeological dig, the authors managed to convey the excitement of a find, the boredom of routine, and the camaraderie of those who work together — the archaeologist, the historian, the graduate students in need of field experience, the horse wranglers, and the cook with a fondness for ghost stories.

Cover image borrowed from Amazon

Old Bones, and now the following book The Scorpion’s Tail, is available from Hachette Books.

Before I end this article, I want to welcome Keisha Oleaga to my roster of followers. Hope you won’t be disappointed, and enjoy the madness.

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Margaret the Word Witch

My pens are my wands. I have bookworm DNA, and an eye for detail, especially in fiction. Come, help me make magic.