Monday, February 26, 2018

A terrifying take on the Donner Party

The Hunger

Alma Katsu

G.P. Putnam's Sons 

March 6, 2018

4 & 1/2 stars


For those who never opened their American history textbook in school, The Donner Party was a group of families, a total of about 90 individuals, who were traveling by horse and wagons to California in the years of 1846 and 1847. After a series of misfortune and tragedies, they became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter. Only 45 survived to make it to Sutter Fort. The stories that came from the survivors were those of vast misfortune, fatal decisions and accusations of cannibalism.

Alma Katsu's fictional account of the Donner Party misfortunes comes with another imaginative addition, that of the supernatural. The Hunger is a highly successful mixture of the historical novel and the horror tale. The author for the most part uses the name of the actual persons in the party, adds a few other historical personages like the trapper and scout Jim Bridger, and adds just a few fictional characters. Even though several characters figure in the main narration, the main protagonist is James Stanton, a single man on the trip who has secrets of his own. In a sweeping narration like this it often becomes difficult to keep track of all the characters. I found myself, after a few pages, perusing over the actual history of the Donner Party just to get a better idea of the events. I found that Katsu's account, with a major and obvious exception, was fairly loyal to it. That exception is "The Hunger".

The Hunger is both an historical novel and a fantasy. I imagine this is a difficult thing to do. Katsu uses some back stories to give us an view of the various persons that figure in the telling and to be honest, I do not know how much of their back stories was real, especially for James Reed, Tamsen Donner, and Charles Stanton. These three characters figure strongly in the events to come. The author manages to do an impressive job telling the story in an historical sense but deftly adds a sense of terror as she introduces an element of horror into it. Another historical element that is important is that the Donner Party's misfortunes starts a long time before they reach the Sierra Nevada. The novel begins in Wyoming slightly before they reach Fort Bridger and the tragic events that befall the pioneers starts pretty much at that point both historically and in this fiction.

This is where this review gets tricky. The Donner Story is horrific enough without adding a supernatural element. Much of the novel is based on the complex interactions of the members of the party. Stanton's tenuous relations with the Donners is much at play here as well as his troubled past. James Reed's falling out with the travelers plays a role yet I suspect the reason it does is partly fictional . At some point, the reader must put aside Katsu's deft handling of the historical aspects and realize this is a horror novel. That horror is added subtly while the author immerses the reader into the interactions and tribulations of the party members. Yet that horror finally takes hold of us. This is where Katsu shines. From the beginning I expected the horror to be of a much more traditional nature and I do believe the author intentionally leads us that way. Yet Katsu has her own tricks and we get something different than what we expect. It is a neat trick and one that fits keenly into the characters that we have become involved with.

Throughout the novel, the author plays with our sense of wonder and curiosity. She gives us enough historical background to feel rooted while keeping us informed now and then that we are essentially reading a horror novel. She adds a creative something to an incident that was already pretty horrific. Most interesting to me is that, despite the creative addition of her own imagination, we do get a strong sense of the difficulties that the Donner Party went through and what their own frailties added to their bleak tale. It is sometimes hard to separate the real and the imagined in this novel and I believe that is the strength. We could always read an historical account if we want to know what exactly happened to the Donner Party. But it is a story that even in its historical reality confounds the imagination and makes one wonder how something like this could happen in spite of the many warnings the Donner Party received on the way.. Katsu teases it with a tale of horror that relies on a combination of folk legend and our own human nature and makes it just a little more terrifying and therefore entertaining to the reader that dares to stretch the imagination. There were a few times where the imbalance between historical and fantasy stretches a bit but overall The Hunger becomes a riveting tale of human nature and the fear of the unknown.

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