What if the Don­ner party didn’t turn to can­ni­bal­ism?

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - BOOKS -

“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.

Ken Ray­mond kray­mond@ oklahoman.com

BOOK ED­I­TOR

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