New, un­earthly forces doom Don­ner Party

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Steph Cha

You’ve heard of the Don­ner Party. You know they were pi­o­neers who set out for Cal­i­for­nia, that things went poorly and did not end well. If noth­ing else, you prob­a­bly know that they ate one an­other to sur­vive.

The Hunger, Alma Katsu’s new novel (Put­nam, 373 pp., ★★★g), as­sumes some fa­mil­iar­ity with this Cal­i­for­nia Trail hor­ror show. In­stead of sap­ping the story of sus­pense, this fa­mil­iar­ity in­fuses ev­ery page with dread. And that’s be­fore Katsu adds a su­per­nat­u­ral twist.

The novel starts at the end, with a brief pro­logue de­tail­ing the dis­cov­ery of the sur­vivors’ last camp in April 1847: “The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from every­where, from the ground and the wa­ter and the sky.”

With that des­ti­na­tion in mind, we fol­low the ter­ri­ble jour­ney one month at a time, watch­ing the train wreck (or rather, the episode of de­spair, pri­va­tion and can­ni­bal­ism) un­fold in slow mo­tion. (For those who don’t re­mem­ber the de­tails: The pi­o­neers set out from In­de­pen­dence, Mo., in May 1846, and were stranded in the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains for al­most four months. Of the 87 mem­bers of the group, only 48 made it to Cal­i­for­nia alive.)

The path is rid­dled with mis­for­tune and tragedy, frailty and stub­born­ness and er­ror. Katsu shows an acute un­der­stand­ing of hu­man na­ture. The way, for in­stance, Ge­orge Don­ner’s pop­u­lar but ir­re­spon­si­ble lead­er­ship seals the party’s doom: “For many peo­ple did not like the truth, it seemed — thought it was a dirty and dis­taste­ful thing, im­po­lite and com­pli­cated. They didn’t have the pa­tience for it — for num­bers, liters, ra­tions, por­tions, rea­sons. Many sim­ply pre­ferred the sweet, mo­men­tary plea­sure of hear­ing what­ever they wanted to hear.”

All this may have been enough to damn the his­tor­i­cal Don­ner party, but Katsu’s poor souls are dogged by an ad­di­tional evil: a vo­ra­cious pres­ence that stalks them across the land, preying on and in­fect­ing the pi­o­neers. As the days go by, the party dwin­dles, win­nowed by forces known and un­known. Ev­ery­thing goes wrong, and the pi­o­neers turn on one an­other.

Iron­i­cally, the su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ments al­most re­lieve the ten­sion and hor­ror of the story. The Hunger, for all its wicked­ness, is some­how less of a night­mare than the ac­tual Don­ner Party his­tory, some of the dark­ness pushed onto ex­ter­nal threats or dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­tained in one so­cio­pathic vil­lain.

Katsu is at her best when she forces her read­ers to stare at the unimag­in­able meet­ing of or­di­nary peo­ple and ex­tra­or­di­nary des­per­a­tion, us­ing her sharp, haunt­ing lan­guage. As one char­ac­ter re­flects as he lies dy­ing, “Maybe that was the curse of these moun­tains — they turned you mad, then re­flected your own mad­ness back at you, in­car­nate.”

Be­cause what would you do in those moun­tains, to sur­vive the ever-present threat of death? The Hunger might show you more than you’d like to know.

Lewis Ke­se­berg sur­vived the tragedy of the Don­ner Party, stranded in the Sierra Ne­vadas in the 1840s.

Au­thor Alma Katsu

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