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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton


Who hasn’t been interested in the bizarre, sad, and frightening story of The Donner Party? Well, Ms. Burton became more than a little obsessed with it over the years, and with Tamsen Donner in particular, and we are all the beneficiary thanks to this gem of a novel. Told entirely through letters and journal entries by Tamsen, the story jumps back and forth between now (trapped in what is now Donner Pass, in a makeshift shelter, slowly starving to death with her children and her injured husband), and then (the optimistic planning for the trip the prior spring), Tamsen attempts to explain to her sister the hell that she and the others are going through, while trying also to hold on to her sanity. There are in fact 17 letters that Tamsen wrote to her sister that survived which the author did utilize in her research and in the writing of this novel, but of course they were expanded upon greatly. So much is unknown of this wildly unlucky band of pioneers, that she did have to imagine quite a bit. Thanks to an author’s note at the end, and does explain some events and quotes that she altered and why, although I wish I knew which of the letters were real and which aren’t.

This is not just a survival story, but also a love story. Tamsen was older, a widow who had also lost her two children, who had moved West to Illinois (funny to think that at one time, Illinois was considered The Wild West) and was a middle-aged teacher when she met George Donner, an older widow with two daughters. They did seem to be very much in love, but Tamsen, who had also lived in Massachusetts, Maine, and North Carolina, may have been the impetus for the misguided venture to California. The bare facts are plain: In 1846 the Donner Party started too late, took too long on the beginning legs of the trip, took a “short cut” that was a very bad idea, and a murder, a broken axle, and the loss of nearly all of their animals (oxen and cattle) caused them to end up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of winter, unable to pass through. The had insufficient stores for so many people to last so long, and after eating their remaining animals, their shoes, their pets, the covers off of books, they eventually resorted to eating the dead before they were finally rescued. 87 people started out. 48 reached California.

The letters are lyrical, hopeful, and yet practical. Tamsen makes the best of a horrid situation and if we are honest, she does better than most of us would in her circumstances. I was riveted by the story which zipped by in just a couple of hours (given the format of letters, each chapter is very short which speeds the narrative along.) Reading it outside on a hot spring afternoon felt very decadent and almost immoral. The cannibalism isn’t denied, but it is presented without gore or prurient detail (which I appreciated.) This brief novel actually inspired me to do a little research on my own into the history, which I rarely do. Ms. Burton brings this wretched footnote in history to vivid life.

4 comments:

gabrielle burton said...

Dear Caroline,
Google just sent me your thoughtful review of my novel. I'm so pleased that Impatient with Desire brought the members of the Donner Party--especially Tamsen--to life for you. Also that you recognized that it was a love story. (Some people think it's a steamy romance because of the title-- which is 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." At that time, it was just youthful eagerness; later on, in unforeseen circumstances, it takes on a darker resonance.) Re her 17 letters, they're published in one place for the first time in my memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner (U of Nebraska Press, 2009). I appreciate your support. All best, Gabrielle Burton

gabrielle burton said...

Dear Carin,
I see I mixed your name up with your blog name. Sorry about that.
Best,
Gabrielle

Carin said...

No worries - you're certainly not the first person to do that! "Caroline Bookbinder" is from a 1960s Mad magazine joke on "Marjorie Morningstar" that was beaten to death in my family. I did really enjoy your book which I got thanks to the support Voice/Hyperion has provided to the Women's National Book Association and National Reading Group Month. Alas, I wish I had read it in November when I got the ARC, but considering the hundreds of books in my house, the fact that I'm reading it now and not in 2020 is impressive! Good luck!

gabrielle burton said...

Dear Carin,
Reviewing it now is great, because it just came out. I don't know how you even begin to keep up with the deluge of books you get.
Thanks again for your support. And luck back to you.
Gabrielle