A book about the Donner Party ought to be a page-turner. The Wikipedia article on them is fascinating reading. Take what is already an inherently compelling story, add in a supernatural element and you should have a very entertaining book. That’s all I was expecting. Something unnatural is stalking the Donner Party, an evil they cannot see, killing them off one-by-one as they cross the mountains and the snow begins to fall.
Sounds like it should be fun.
I made it through 170 pages before I began skimming.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu has problems.
The biggest problem is the lack of dramatic tension. It’s a long time before the supernatural evil appears; then another long time before it shows up a second time. I appreciate a slow burn, but you have to give the reader something to keep the pages turning. The story of the Donner Party itself provides this tension for much of the book. There really is enough tension in the history without the supernatural elements which is a problem for the novel. I think it would have been better, more suspenseful, without the monster.
After 50 pages, maybe 75, I noticed that all the significant focus was on the male members of the Donner Party. This changed some as things moved along and the character of Tamsen Donner was revealed to be something of a witch, but why not focus more on the women in the first place? Why not make them the stars of the story this time around? I was frankly a bit surprised to find Ms. Katsu’s spending so much time with the men.
And where was Patty Reed’s doll? Historically, 8-year-old Virginia (Patty) Reed was forced to abandon all of her toys when her father was forced to lighten the load of their family’s wagon. She secretly hid her favorite doll in her skirts and managed to keep it all the way to California, throughout the entire Donner Party disaster. Wouldn’t you incorporate this into your story of the Donner Party somehow? I now this bit of history appears a bit trite, a bit precious, but as a metaphor I find it quite powerful. What is the one thing you would insist on keeping against all odd, even if you had to keep it secret from everyone you know and love? In The Hunger young Patty simply puts her doll on the pile of discarded toys and walks away.
Two more issues with the book for me.
First, the more working class men in the party, the teamsters who took care of the wagons and the animals, are portrayed as violent and threatening types. Since they are working class laborers they must be threatening to all of the women in the party. Sort of laborer equals sexual deviant. It might be time for us to move beyond this stereotype.
Finally, the portrayal of James Reed. James Reed was one of the main organizers of the Donner Party. He traveled his with wife, two of her children from a previous marriage, and two of their own children. After an altercation with two other men in the party that ended with Reed stabbing one man to death, he was “exiled.” Sent ahead to gather supplies, he made it to Sutter’s Fort before the snowfall that trapped the rest of the party in the mountains. Reed spent months trying to gather a rescue party which proved difficult as the war with Mexico had just started forcing all available men in California to enlist. Eventually, Reed gathered a search party and was able to rescue many of the survivors including his own family.
In The Hunger Ms. Katsu portrays Reed as secretly gay. We learn through flashbacks that he was forced to leave Illinois after his young lover embezzled funds from his company. The man he stabs to death is also a former lover. Reed is forced to stab him to death when he threatens to reveal what he knows about Reed’s sexual proclivities.
I have two problems with this portrayal. First, there is no way the historical James Reed was gay. He did marry a widow with two children; I could see how that might work as a ‘cover story’ to hide his sexuality in plain sight. But they went on to have four more children together. Four. In California during throughout the 19th century, it was common for two men to form a partnership, to live together, to share a bed, not just in the mining camps. Many of these partnerships lasted throughout life. It was also common for men to abandon wives and children, leave town, leave the state. Changing your name and starting a new life was as easy as hopping on a boat bound for Portland. One of my partners great-grandfathers was long believed to have been a casualty of the 1906 earthquake until genealogical research found he had registered to vote several years later in a town a couple hundred miles away.
The historical James Reed not only went to great lengths to rescue his wife and children, he stayed with them until his death in 1875.
So I’m not buying the gay affairs.
And let’s talk about those affairs.
Why is it that in a novel which can imagine a supernatural creature stalking the Donner Party that the only possible story line for a gay man is the tired old trope of betrayal, blackmail and murder? Sebastian Barry in his wonderful novel Days Without End imagined a love story between two boys set in this same time period that ending with them creating a family of their own, with children. Mr. Barry pulls this leap of imagination off so well that he was long listed for the Booker Prize. Personally, I’m more than a little tired of the gay victim plot. It hasn’t been fresh since Lillian Hellman did it in The Children’s Hour. Time to give it a good long rest.
So, I started skimming. I still cared enough to find out what happened, but not enough to actually read it all myself.
However, The Hunger has got me interested in the historical Donner Party. I’ve got two books on it waiting for me at my local library. So be sure to check back here in a week or two if you want to know more, too.