Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.
Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone--or something--is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck--the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.
While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions--searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand--evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves "What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased...and very hungry?"
Hardcover, 376 pages
Published March 6th 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
The Pioneer wagon train that was DOOMED….and a HUNGER that was lurking within!
“Evil was invisible, and it was everywhere.”
― Alma Katsu
Alma Katsu did an amazing job when combining actual history and blending in fictional elements intrinsically. Researching The Donner/Reed parties that attempted the migration west through uncharted regions of the Sierra Mountains with little choice for survival is a brilliant setting for a fictional novel, and Katsu explored and executed this with perfection.
The Donner/Reed party, friends, family (including almost half of them children under the age of 18), employees, drivers, cattle, provisions and so forth, left for their journey to California later in the year then other Pioneer wagon trails have. Instead of leaving for their trip in mid-April, they actually did not leave until May 12, 1846.
Many of the actual persons of the party appear in Katsu’s novel mostly true to what we know about them. George Donner, age 60 at the time, and his wife Tamsen with their children and those from his previous marriage, his younger brother Jacob Donner, age 56, and his family came along. James F. Reed, Irish immigrant, age 45 with his wife Margret, mother and children, made up the other large group traveling. Other families, widows, men and woman joined the party along the way such as Levinah Murphy and her children, the Breen family, Patrick Dolan, Lewis Keseberg and family, the Wolfingers, the Graves family….just to name a few.
Under great conditions, traveling at 15 miles a day, their journey should have taken them 4-6 months. This is in consideration of rough terrain and inclement weather if they stayed on the Northwestern Route. Once through the mountain pass in Wyoming, by Fort Bridger, the party has the choice now to take a shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains in UT and past the southern part of the Great Salt Lake to make it into Nevada. However, provisions are starting to run low and the weather has untimely changed cold early in the season. With a late start to begin with, this is not a great combination.
Staying very much true to these facts, Katsu starts to develop her characters multi-dimensional along the way. Socio-economic statuses, backgrounds and relationships are explored. Comradery, friendships and foes are established. She sets the mood/tone, when mysterious things start to happen around camp and along the way.
Katsu’s novel reminds me of The Terror by Dan Simmons. The unsettling creepiness that ensues from within is unseen, creating demons and monsters lurking all around. Katsu’s craft to create both scenes that describe landscapes most beautifully and intricate, but also evoke a chilling fear and tension of the unseen and unheard is exquisite. Slowly the nights are turning scary, the cold is becoming bitter and among the pioneers or perhaps surrounded by, is a Hungerthat does not stop…..It kills and spreads, tormenting them all.
And still the voices crowded her head, whispering terrible things and leaving a deep tunnel of loneliness, as if their words were sharp and physical things hollowing out her center. She was desperate for quiet, for peace, for silence.”
― Alma Katsu
As the pioneers start to split in search of better travel routes, the ominous dark that surrounds them continues. Some that venture away from camp don’t return. Some of the families loose loved ones, due to consumption, disease or…..MURDER. A widespread panic is difficult to contain accompanied by the diminished rations and the cold.
“The aloneness ate a hole through him. Sometimes he worried that the loneliness had taken everything, that there was nothing left of him at all on the inside.”
― Alma Katsu
“Elitha couldn’t pretend. She burned with shame. And still the voices crowded her head, whispering terrible things and leaving a deep tunnel of loneliness, as if their words were sharp and physical things hollowing out her center. She was desperate for quiet, for peace, for silence.”
― Alma Katsu
“Then the Lord must be mightily displeased with you, because he has led you into the valley of death. Make peace with your Lord before it is too late, because the hungry ones are coming for you.”
― Alma Katsu
The book commences with most of the pioneers starved or perished, almost like the actual Donner Party. However, no rescue parties are coming for the poor lost souls from The Hunger. The ending is eluding to a most suspicious monster within that strikes and spreads. The reader is given clues in dialogue to interpret The End.
Relief efforts for the actual survivors of the Donner/Reed party that made it to Truckee Lake were made in three parts with several weeks in between. The treacherous terrain and billowing cold made it an ordeal for any rescue effort. Out of the 80-some people that started the journey, only half survived.
The whole point of going west was part of the Manifest Destiny. The wish to establish and prosper in California was a dream that many followed. Out of the survivors, Reed was the only one that actually fared well in the California Gold Rush and became prosperous. The Donner children were orphaned. Widowed women remarried and Keseberg grew old and withdrawn.
This novel certainly has peaked my interest for more. I was aware of the Donner party and vaguely remember reading about them in the past, but not in detail. Not only do I want to learn more now and get my hands on real sources, but I am also intrigued by Alma Katsu. I believe there have been other writings if not even movies made of this fateful venture, but I am at awe at Katsu’s skills. Her writing holds up with the best.
I generally love historical fiction almost above all other genres. I read such great reviews about this book that despite my squeamishness towards horror I gave it a try. I honestly have to say, it was not as frightful as I anticipated. I was advised to leave the lights on to read, and to not to be alone etc. But it really wasn’t that bad. The scenes were there, but they weren’t horrific, more of a tension…a flutter in the chest. So, even if you are not a reader of the darker kind of fiction, give this a try. Katsu’s writing is a treat…and she can’t change the fact that cannibalism was involved during the actual journey.
Also, thank you to Stephen for the last minute buddy read. I enjoyed your thoughts and our discussions on this novel :)