What if the Donner party didn’t turn to cannibalism?
“The Hunger” by Alma Katsu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, in stores)
At its outset, the Donner party must’ve been extraordinary: 89 people, 20 wagons and herds of cattle all rolling out of Springfield, Illinois, on their way to new lives in California in 1846. The excitement of new beginnings would’ve been palpable.
Few people uproot themselves from the ease of civilization to wander, somewhat blindly, onto a new path. Fewer still do it when they’re already wealthy, as the Donner brothers, George and Jacob, were. So they were risk-takers, gamblers, possible optimists. They weren’t the only rich folks in the group, either, although there were plenty with light pockets. Everyone had a reason for joining the wagon train.
Most people know what happened next: Delays, attrition, feuds and poor decisions cost the travelers precious time. The group had to create its own path through rough terrain, dodging boulders and risking wagon wheels and axles on uneven ground. Their shortcut left them out in the cold, too close to winter, and when they finally made it to Utah and headed into the Sierra Nevadas, their fate was sealed.
Heavy snowfall clogged the mountain passes, making travel impossible. About half of the group remained together, watching the snowfall, depleting their rations, growing weak and scared and starving. Eventually, they turned to cannibalism.
Or did they?
Alma Katsu imagines a similar yet altogether different situation for the trapped settlers in her novel, “The Hunger.” Katsu uses the names and known characteristics of the travelers but places them in wholly fictional situations and gives them made-up background stories.
The novel moves at a slow pace, in keeping with the progress of the Donner party. That pace provides a slow burn marked by escalating terror and excitement, leading to an ending that’s beyond unsettling.
The story goes something like this: Charles Stanton, a single man, is part of the wagon train. He doesn’t have much in his favor except experience, common sense and good looks. He’s friends with another loner, Edwin Bryant, a former newspaperman about 10 years his senior.
Stanton is honor-bound to help everyone make it to California, but Bryant has his own motives for making the trip and eventually sets out on his own. For a while, Bryant had studied medicine, and he and his instructor had stumbled upon the idea that there may be a virus that extends life or requires victims to eat other humans. It’s probably nothing, but when Bryant learns of a tribe of American Indians rumored to be cannibals, he goes in search of them.
Meanwhile, petty jealousies and unexplained deaths turn the settlers against each other. No one is more despised than George Donner’s wife, Tamsen, who is pretty and sensual and not really cut out to be a mother to Donner’s children. Rumors abound that she is promiscuous and a witch, and to an extent, both are true.
Mainly it’s the men who argue. Party leadership changes, with James Reed temporarily taking charge. An unpleasant man, German immigrant Lewis Keseburg, tries to kill Stanton with Tamsen’s derringer, apparently because he knows Stanton and Tamsen have been together, while she has spurned him.
As they head deeper into unknown territory, people begin to disappear. One is found dead and seemingly torn apart. Tamsen spots mysterious gray people in the fog and shadows, herding them, waiting to catch people alone and vulnerable. There is talk of skinwalkers, or men who can transform into other beasts, and people who were fine when they went to bed wake up near death.
No one knows what’s going on. Is it disease? Are they being poisoned? Is it the Indians? Could it be something even worse?
The party fragments. The Donners, once the leaders, become reviled because they have more than the others and won’t give everything away. They hang back and watch the rest of the wagons disappear into the woods. When the snow comes, they and others who lingered near them are trapped in or near the remains of an old camp ... where they die, one by one, succumbing to cold and sickness and perhaps something else.
To say more would be to ruin the book. Suffice to say that nearly every character has a secret; little is as it seems, and if you’ve guessed that there’s a vampire preying on the party, you’re dead wrong.
Katsu does a remarkable job of transforming a true story into a hard-to-putdown work of fiction. Parts of it call to mind “Ravenous,” a 1999 film that includes cannibalism, but on the whole Katsu’s work is unique, literary and entertaining.
Read the book before seeing the inevitable movie. Even as Katsu was writing the novel, there was talk of it being turned into a film. Those plans have solidified this year, with Ridley Scott’s son, Luke Scott, being chosen to direct.