Friday, April 16, 2010


By Gabrielle Burton

Hyperion/Voice Books, $22.99, 256 pages


”Impatient With Desire” is definitely not a quick read, though it is not a long book, nor is Gabrielle Burton’s style dense or difficult. It’s the subject matter that slows the reader down. The history of the Donner party daunts everyone. All the 19th-century emigrants who made their way along the Oregon Trail to California faced enormous hardships, but the Donner party took what they believed was a shortcut and found themselves stranded for four winter months in the Sierra Nevada. Of the 87 people in the party, only 47 survived, and it is clear both from survivors’ accounts and historians’ studies that the survivors lived only because they ate those who had died.

The Donner party thus elicits the full a spectrum of emotions that thrill: the hope and endurance that inspires, the heroism that awes, and the determination to defeat death by cannibalism that horrifies.

Many writers who fictionalize such grim histories produce turgid books whose ersatz allure comes from painting horror in neon colors. Ms. Burton avoids this by trimming the Donners’ story to its essentials, pinpointing her characters’ motivations and feelings and therefore explaining their actions at every step of their fateful way.

Tamsen Donner tells how the tragedy happens through letters and journal entries she writes en route to the Sierra Nevada and flashbacks to her early life. The daughter of a sea captain of Newburyport, Mass., she supported herself as a schoolteacher before marrying George Donner. They had five daughters when they left their prosperous Illinois farm for California, the enticing state that seemed to offer an earthly paradise to those who could get there.

“My whole life my heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. When anyone ever went any place, I always wondered: What will they see? What is there that is not here? What waits for them that I am missing?” she writes. The Donners left with several more families, all with children. Indeed, there were at least as many children in the party as adults. The mistake the Donner party made was to leave the established trail to follow a cutoff that promised to shave 300 miles off the journey.

But the route was unproved. In any case, success in getting over the Rockies depended on beating the snow. By early November 1846, they reached Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada, already exhausted after crossing the Wasatch desert. They could go no farther so some of them snow-shoed out for help. Rescuers tried to reach them, but relief did not arrive until mid-February 1847, when many had already died of starvation and illness.

“All that grief and confusion and chicanery and betrayal and carelessness and death just to get us here to these dull, thudding, stuporous, barely noticeable deaths,” reflects Tamsen. She has spent weeks boiling hides to feed her daughters; bathing her husband’s injured hand while watching the infection creep up his arm; seeing her brother-in-law die and his wife and many others lose hope.

“Our teamsters lay in their shelter deathlike, and when life left there was hardly a difference,” she writes. The dead had to be buried in the snow. As starvation stalked the camp, many - probably everyone - turned to them as the only source of food.

In her journal and letters, Tamsen lists the dead, describes her fading children, praises her patient husband, and recalls her girlhood, when the arrival of ships with gifts from afar stirred her hunger to see the world for herself. She knows if she hadn’t had the gypsy feet of the born wanderer George wouldn’t have left Illinois. She also realizes that paradoxically, instead of making a better life for her children, she has brought tragedy and death into their world. As their father lies dying, he says that as Americans they had no alternative but to take up the challenge of exploring westward, but Tamsen has a deeper understanding of what was at work:

“‘We will carve out a new country,’ we shouted, not realizing that the new country will be no more and no less that the worst and best of us.” Gabrielle Burton is much more interested in exploring this theme than the traditional manifest destiny notion. In her hands, Tamsen Donner becomes a 19th-century American heroine: an educated woman with many skills, wide interests and deep love of her family.

As Ms. Burton reflects, she lived at the same time as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she shares her conviction that women are as competent as men. When the Donner party votes about whether to take the established route to California or head for the newly discovered cutoff, the women, who do as much work as the men and understand as much about the problems they face, are disenfranchised - and Tamsen would not have chosen the cutoff route.

The portrayal of Tamsen and the investigation of motivation is one of the triumphs of “Impatient With Desire.” The other is Ms. Burton’s narrative skill. By switching between Tamsen’s memories of her early life and her record of the travails on the journey, she downloads information at a rate readers can absorb and in a way that entices them into her tale eager to unravel the mystery of why people cast their all on such perilous ventures. Her novel is therefore not just a gripping tale of the Donner party, but a model of how to write compelling and enlightening historical fiction. Physically, too, the book is a pleasure: It is a convenient size - perfect for reading on a journey or in bed - its cover is beautiful, and it even has illustrations.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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