Houston follows the events of 1847 through the eyes of James Reed and his daughter Patty. Exiled from the party after he accidentally killed one of its members, Reed made it over the Sierras before snow locked what is now called Donner Pass. His family, however, did not. Along with more than 80 other stranded emigrants, they erected crude cabins below the summit and settled in for a long winter of hunger, cold, madness, and cannibalism, chronicled by Patty Reed in prose of uncommon urgency and even beauty. Here, for instance, she watches as her mother walks away with the first rescue party, leaving her by the shores of Truckee Lake:
My body was like an empty bottle sitting on a dark shelf in an empty cupboard. A cold sun was shining. While we stood there the wind came up, rushing through the pines with a sound like surf, a gushing roar like water on the rise, as if an ocean of ice water had begun to pour across the world.