Review: Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton

Westward, ho!

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.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the author for sending Impatient with Desire for me to review.  It was lovely, and I will pass it along to my mother, who also enjoys historical fiction.  I think it would also make a great book club selection.

26 Responses

  1. Terrific review, Lisa! I, too, had heard about the cannibalism, but little else.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for pointing this book out. I think like many people, I’ve always found this story to be gut wrenching and intriguing all at the same time. It’s hard to imagine the kind of desperation that would drive someone to cannibalism. Obviously, there is a lot more to that story, and this looks like an interesting take on it. Thanks!

    • It really gives a good picture of how it might have happened, and why. I tried to put myself in their place, with all these little children, and knew I’d do whatever it took to try to keep them alive.

  3. Having grown up in central California, I’m familiar with the Donner party story and the area where they were trapped that winter. This historical fiction book sounds like it could make readers feel like they were there!

    • I grew up back east so I didn’t learn much about it in school. It was probably more of a footnote in a lesson on the westward movement.

  4. Nice review. I’d be interested in reading this one for sure. My grandfather always told us about the Donner Party and we learned a little of them in school. I have always been interested in their story. Whenever I go that route on the mountains they cross my mind.

    • I’ve never been that route through the mountains but if I ever go, I’ll be thinking of them. Travel was just so arduous then- I can’t believe they even attempted to cross over mountains in covered wagons, with a bunch of babies and toddlers!

  5. So I read the title of your post and thought it was some sordid erotic romance. And then I realized it was being reviewed *here* and I realized I must be very wrong!

    I remember learning about this expedition, briefly, as I am from IL. The book sounds fascinating and disturbing. Isn’t it weird how many people fall to cannibalism in those circumstances? Well, I guess it’s not weird, but inevitable. It kind of frightens me that starvation has THAT huge an effect, you know? That it can make people cross a line they never thought they’d cross. It must be terrible.

    • Ha!! No, no sordid erotic romance here!!

      I thought about that too- how bad would things need to be before you’d cross that line. After reading the book, I understand. They’d already eaten everything else, things you’d never imagine trying to eat. There was nothing left to do. But, truly, the cannibalism is just a small part of the book and is stated very matter-of-factly.

  6. The title of the book doesn’t fit the description in my humble opinion! The book sounds fantastic!

    • The title refers to the way Tamsen Donner was never happy staying in one place; she was impatient with the desire to see other things, always curious. I think, if I remember correctly, that the line was taken from a letter she wrote to her sister.

  7. I noticed this book the other day and thought it sounded intriguing. I’ve always been interested in the Donner family. Sounds like a must read. Great review Lisa!

  8. Dear Lisa,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful review of my novel. I’m so happy that Tamsen became real and heroic for you–that was my hope. And also that the cannibalism would be seen in perspective, a last resort, rather than always dominating the story of these brave people we owe so much to.
    You’re right about the title–it’s from a letter Tamsen wrote her sister when she was 23, sailing on a great ship from MA to NC at a time when women didn’t travel alone. Mid trip she wrote, “My heart is big with hope and impatient with desire.” Then it was just youthful eagerness; later on, as you know, in unforeseen, unimagined consequences, it takes on a darker meaning.
    I’m pleased you’re giving it to your mother. My kids and I share books too.
    Gabrielle Burton

  9. I’ve always been fascinated by this story and growing up in California we seemed to learn about it every year in our history lessons. I’ve read several non-fiction acounts of what happened but this fiction one sounds good too!

  10. I don’t think I know about this story. And you could NEVER have gotten me to attempt such a trek. But that’s precisely why I think I want to read this! Thanks.

  11. I have been waiting to read a review of this, and yours was great! I am so looking forward to reading this. I have long been interested in the Donner party and it’s frightening fate they faced, so this seems like a must read for me!

  12. I’m pretty sure I would love this book. I’m fascinated by survival stories, and it seems like all the reviews I’ve seen are positive.

  13. I haven’t seen a bad review of this one yet! Thanks for sharing your opinion (and glad to see you still blogging)! 🙂

  14. I spent many summers camping up near Donner Pass and so the story of the Donner party is one I know well. My family used to walk along part of the trail. I saw mention of this book a week or so ago and was curious about it then. It’s definitely one I need to read, I think. Thanks for your great review, Lisa.

  15. I am going to have to get this book to read. This story line looks really interesting to me.

  16. I love when a story takes on new life by looking through the eyes of another perspective.

  17. Looks like a really good book. Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

  18. It seems there are some things so critical to our history/culture or just so bizarre that we will never stop telling stories about them, and that’s not a bad thing. Re-imaginings of old tales like this are refreshing. It makes me wonder if the Donner Party will someday move beyond history and enter into some sort of pseudo-mythological space.

  19. This is an aspect of the American West that I always found fascinating so I will definitely have to check this book out. Thank you for turning me onto it!

    Looking forward to meeting you at the LA festival of books this weekend too!

  20. lisa, just checking in to make sure everything is okay. haven’t seen a post in a bit. 🙂

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