New, unearthly forces doom Donner Party
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