Review: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party

By Andy Wolverton

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party, by Nathan Hale (Abrams)

Ask a typical kid about his or her favorite subject in school and see how often the answer is history. Probably not very often. But that may be changing with the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, a series of graphic novels for kids Donner-Dinner-Party(recommended for ages 8 and up) written and drawn, oddly enough, by Nathan Hale. (Really, that’s his name.) Not only are these graphic novels produced by a real guy named Nathan Hale, they’re narrated by the fictional embodiment of the American Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Hale. As the first book, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy, opens, Hale has been captured by the British in New York in September, 1776, and is about to be hanged as a spy. Just before the hanging can be carried out, an enormous history book swoops down from the sky and envelops Hale within its pages. When he emerges, Hale is filled with visions of future history. His captors, a stodgy British military provost and a goofy masked executioner, demand to hear what the flying history book has to say. So Hale tells them a tale he knows well: how he came to be a spy for the Continental Army. The tale is so compelling, and the provost and the executioner demand to hear more, giving the book a sort of Scheherazade feel. As long as Hale keeps the stories interesting, he avoids the hangman’s noose.

The second book, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!, recounts the Civil War battle of the warships the Merrimack and the Monitor. The third, and most recent, book opens with the provost and the executioner bickering over the fact that they still haven’t hanged Hale and they’re starving. “I’ve got a story about hungry people,” Hale says. “This story is guaranteed to make you lose your appetite.” Thus begins Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party, the famous tale of American pioneers from the Midwest traveling by wagon to California in 1846.

The flying history book that hits him in the first book gives Hale (the narrator) the ability to project images from the future so that the provost and the executioner (and, of course, the reader) can see these stories unfold. Hale (the author/illustrator) illustrates his stories in black and white plus one other dominant color throughout (green in the most recent work; red in the first book, blue in the second). The story frequently shifts between the historical accounts and “present” time interruptions by the provost/executioner on the gallows. This back-and-forth narration could be confusing to young readers, but Hale colors the historical account speech balloons in white and the “present” ones in green, making distinguishing between them easy.

I was initially concerned that Hale had chosen such a bleak, tragic event for his third book, an often gruesome tale of western expansion in which nearly half of the party dies, sometimes horribly. Poor decisions are made, Donner-Sampletempers flare, cattle and provisions are lost, people die. So how could a book so bleak still be funny? Hale — who has previously illustrated picture books and the graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge — strikes a good balance between the burdens and horrors of the journey with humor and a light touch. Early in the book, Hale takes advantage of the small format by drawing small, almost tiny panels, giving us an almost claustrophobic sense of what it must have been like to pack several families into covered wagons. When Hale does allow us a glimpse of the broad scope of the land in larger panels, it’s almost as if he’s let us out of a cramped closet. We feel this, as well as the fear of Indians and wildlife, the heat and cold, and yes, the hunger. The lighter moments (even the darker humor and one-liners) provide for more than a few smiles and laughs. Good history often consists of good stories with good pacing, and Hale certainly knows how to provide this. Hale’s drawings are clear and easy to follow for young readers. He has a talent for making his characters’ facial expressions (particularly the eyes) unmistakable, which is essential for storytelling in such a small format.

One problem with many period graphic novels featuring large casts is in distinguishing the characters, from one another. This was a minor problem with the first two books, but Donner Dinner Party contains 90 different characters (all drawn in a “Who Died and Who Survived” section in the back of the book). Yet Hale does a fine job keeping most of the major characters distinct from one another.  Donner Dinner Party, like the two previous books, also contains epilogues, brief biographies of the main characters, a bibliography of suggested further reading, and other useful material.

As you might imagine, all of the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales books are fun, exciting and sometimes irreverent. Does Hale take some liberties with history? Sure, but none of them are so far afield that anyone’s going to make a fuss. (Hale even explains why he took some of the liberties in the Donner Dinner Party’s “Correction Baby” pages.) The historic Nathan Hale may have had only one life to give for his country, but let’s hope that the author Nathan Hale has many more tales to come. These books are about celebrating history, but they’re also about having fun. My hat’s off to Hale for managing to do both.

Be sure to check out works by Nathan Hale:

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