Many know the story: The Donner Party was a group of doomed pioneers who left in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 for the promise of great adventure and a better life in California. Due to a series of mishaps, poor choices, an ill-advised shortcut, early winter weather, and time-wasting travails, the trip took much longer than planned. The group became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for several months with few supplies and little food. They are infamous for the way they attempted to survive, by eating the flesh of those who had died before them.
Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton is told through the imagined letters and fictional journal entries of Tamsen Donner, 45 year old wife of George Donner, the party leader. The book was a bit tricky to follow at first, because it’s not chronological, so it would shift from the present horror of starvation and death to happier times in their past, including Tamsen and George’s courtship, their decision to go on the journey and how it was made, memories from Tamsen’s childhood and first marriage, etc., then back to the freezing, starving, mind numbing realities of the Sierra Nevadas. It didn’t take long, though, before I got into the flow of the narrative, and I was riveted.
Tamsen tries to distract her children from their hunger and harsh surroundings by describing the apple trees and cherry orchards from home, the lovely warm breezes of a Springfield summer. When one of the children asks, “Why did we leave?” their mother, sadly, has no adequate answer. It’s something she thinks about constantly.
It is well known that the real Tamsen Donner kept a journal, but it unfortunately was destroyed. One can only guess at what might have been written there, but certainly she would have recorded births, deaths, and details of the trip. One might also expect to find dreams of the American West (the last frontier), fear of the unknown, feelings of regret and blame at the horrific turn of events, and hope for the future of their children. That is all here in this fictional account.
I knew of the Donner Party because of the cannibalism but wondered how things could ever have gotten to that point. By the time I discovered the answer to that question, it seemed like the only feasible option a mother could make- survival. Tamsen Donner comes across as courageous, loving, strong, and full of wanderlust. This book is a fascinating account of how things might have been and truly captures the pioneer spirit.