Revisiting the Donner Party, East Bay hills history, and Tom Heyman.
The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis (Liveright Publishing Corp., 2017, 455 pp., $27.95)
Optimism and excitement over new California beginnings and westward expansion turn to heartache and horror in this definitive tale of the Donner Party’s desperate attempts to beat and then weather a brutal 1847 winter that trapped the emigrants in the deeply snow-covered Sierra Nevada without adequate provisions. Michael Wallis, a best-selling history author, pens a memorable, readable, and compelling account of the wagon train catastrophe that hinged on an unproven shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, touted by sketchy developer Lansford Hastings in his thin and anemic guide, The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. The cast of characters, 87 when the expedition begins, is a monster to keep up with, and Wallis augments with first, second, third, and fourth relief volunteers, but a well-sourced appendix helps straighten all the personalities out. —Judith M. Gallman
East Bay Hills: A Brief History by Amelia Sue Marshall (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2017, 254 pp., $21.99)
Want to learn some history about your own backyard once populated by Saclans, cowboys, and lumberjacks? Amelia Sue Marshall, who lives with her family on Peralta Creek in Oakland, offers a fact-filled look at the East Bay hills, beginning with the indigenous peoples and then touching on all those who followed: the Californios, sea captains, Yankees, loggers, settlers, visionaries, rangers, horse people, and naturalists. As true with most Arcadia publications, this one presents an array of historic imagery such as stoic early settlers, gussied up couples, bustling lumberyards, schoolhouses, cottages, trains, and taverns. The author closes with a synopsis of the ongoing modern-day clashes of bicyclists, equestrians, dog walkers, and hikers in the preserved regional parks and the education efforts to make peace among them.—JMG
Show Business, Baby by Tom Heyman (Bohemian Neglect Recording Works, TomHeymanMusic.net)
In the two decades since he moved to San Francisco from Philadelphia, Tom Heyman has been a local MVP, largely in supporting roles (Chuck Prophet, the Court and Spark, Sonny Smith) and as a go-to pedal steel guitarist. On his fourth solo album, he captures the toughest spirit and sound of early ’70s pub rock. Fans of Dave Edmunds and NRBQ will relish the bouncy bite of the personnel-shifting quintets—a couple of snarling guitars, and hard-driving rhythm sections of bass, drums, and keyboards, with some additional percussion and vocals—that support Heyman’s roots-rock singing and period-perfect songwriting. On 11 originals, Heyman plies fundamentalist rock themes (work, romance, aging) with authority that matches the two great covers: Dion’s 1968 “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” and Sonny Curtis’s 1960 “Baby My Heart.” In this case, “show business” is sticking gloriously to basics, baby. —Derk Richardson