Learn about Donner Party’s Virginia Reed

By From page B2 | August 13, 2014

Wine for Words A

AUTHOR NANCY HERMAN is the featured speaker at Wine for Words at the El Dorado County Library in Placerville on Sunday, Aug. 17. She will be talking about her book "All We Left behind —Virginia Reed." Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

What: Wine for Words

Who: Placerville Friends of the Library

Where: El Dorado County Library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville

When: Sunday, Aug. 17

Cost: $50 per person



Placerville author Nancy Herman became enthralled with a book length poem by George Keithly about the Donner Party when she was a young adult.

“It told the complete story from the beginning of their trip to the end, the mistakes they made and their relationships. It made their experience so human and real that it stuck with me and I decided that, one day, I wanted to write my own book about the Donner Party.”

Herman’s novel,”All That We Left Behind: Virginia Reed and the Donner Party,” the compelling story of the Donner Party as told through the eyes of one of its young survivors, is the centerpiece of the ninth annual Wine for Words fundraiser for the El Dorado County Library in Placerville.

The event, set for Sunday, Aug. 17, is sponsored by the Placerville Friends of the Library and will be held at the library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville, from 4-8 p.m.

The evening will include wine tasting, catered dinner and a silent auction/raffle and will feature a discussion by Nancy Herman of her historical novel.

“Members of the Friends of the Library and the El Dorado Women’s Fund who had read the book recommended it when we were looking for a ‘Wine for Words’ author,” said Barbara Parmenter, member of FOL. “We are focusing more and more on California authors and after reading the novel myself, I was very happy she agreed to be our speaker.”

Herman, 67, wrote for the Palo Alto Time” early in her career but switched to the world of high tech in the 1980s, doing marketing communications.

“I wrote a lot of customer stories and stories about our products and I loved the writing,” said Herman.

In 2002, Herman and her husband, Tom, moved to a 5-acre parcel in  Placerville after Tom’s retirement. Herman ran her own business doing marketing and technical writing, but in 2006 she retired to write full-time, pursuing her dream to write about the Donner Party.

“I really wanted to try it, so I took writing workshops and classes, seminars and participated in writing groups,” said Herman.

She  joined the Society of  Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators with an eye to creating a book geared toward young adults.

“I wanted to use Virginia Reed as the protagonist because she had left so much documentation of the journey through diaries and other records,” said Herman.

The journey of research began with Herman reading everything published about the Donner Party, spending a lot of time at the Sacramento Historical Library, Sutter’s Fort, the Bancroft Library and the Oakland State Museum.

“I also worked with Kristin Johnson, a Donner Party historian, to make sure everything was right,” said Herman. “At first, the research was laborious, but then it kind of took over and became intoxicating. There is always more to find out.”


The journey

The most rewarding part of the research was re-creating the Donner Party journey from Independence, Miss. to California by car which Herman did alone.

“It was so different from just seeing pictures and reading descriptions. A lot of the Midwest hasn’t changed much since the Donner Party traveled. It was fascinating to see the actual places like the 40 Mile Desert and the Humboldt Sink.”

The many visitor centers along the Oregon Trail were very helpful, with staff often taking time to point out historical features that might have been missed otherwise.

Herman’s novel is now carried in each one of the visitor centers along the Oregon Trail.

Virginia Reed’s entire family survived the tragedy with many of the members living into their 80s and 90s.

“There was nothing in any research to show that they spent years agonising about what happened,” said Herman. “They had to hit the ground running because once they arrived at Sutter’s Fort, they had nothing. There were no safety nets in those days, but there were lots of opportunities,” said Herman.

What surprised Herman in her research was that many of the people who died in the Donner Party tragedy were young, healthy, single men who weren’t connected to the families that were traveling.

“Most of the women and children, except for babies, survived,” said Herman, “and that was really interesting to me.”


A new project

Herman is starting research on her next book, also a historical fiction, but she is excited about presentations such as Wine for Words and looks forward to making presentations at schools as well and in getting her novel into school libraries.

“All We Left Behind,” is available  for sale at the Aug. 17 event, online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and  locally at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills and the El Dorado Arts Council in Placerville. It has been hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “an evenhanded, informative account of an American tragedy.”

Herman’s Website at features more about her extensive travels and research.

Proceeds from “Wine for Words” go directly to buy new books for the El Dorado County Library in Placerville.

“This is especially important now, because the library receives no federal or state dollars and relies totally on the county for limited funds that buy less and less each year,” explained Joan Wallace, president of the Placerville Friends of the Library.

The organization has set a goal of increasing funding for book purchases to help keep the library from having to reduce hours or staff.

Tickets are $50 per person and are available at the El Dorado County Libraries in Placerville, Cameron Park and El Dorado Hills.

This year’s Wine for Words is underwritten by El Dorado Savings Bank and Spot On Signs & Graphics.

For additional information visit    

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.

Wendy Schultz

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