The Donner Dinner Party: On Alma Katsu’s ‘The Hunger’

Paige M. Ferro
Aug 26, 2018 · 8 min read

With vivid imagery, Katsu gives us a dark, fantastical version of one of America’s most disturbing and gruesome tragedies.

Alma Katsu
Novel | 384 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Hardcover
9780735212510 | First Edition | $27.00
G. P. Putnam’s Sons | New York City | BUY HERE

You’ve probably heard of the least-fun party in human history: the Donner Party. I can lay money down on this one — you’ve heard about the ill-fated journey of the optimistic, under-prepared settlers who took their oxen and covered wagons heading west to California and new lives. Spoiler alert: Most of them didn’t make it. Most of them died. Many of them were eaten. By each other.

How is it I could have guessed you’d heard about what historians call one of the most tragic, bizarre, and gruesome episodes in western-U.S. migration? Because it’s a story too good to resist. We can’t help ourselves — humans are curious creatures, drawn to stare with wide eyes and mouths agape at anything sinister, wicked, or weird. We love to scare ourselves silly with the truth. This really happened? we wonder aloud, turning to each other with hands cupped around ears or pointing with shaking fingers. This strange, unnatural, inexplicable thing actually happened. This is how base the human condition really is. Look, look, look.

Alma Katsu’s new novel, The Hunger, is a deliciously thrilling supernatural / historical fiction that elegantly straddles the line between history and make-believe. This almost-400-page book is addicting, terrifying, and brilliant — a read suitable for both history and horror fans alike. Stephen King, arguably one of the most talented science fiction / horror writers who ever lived, says of this book, “Deeply, deeply disturbing, hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.”

The scene sets on April, 1847, the spring following a harsh winter, “one of the worst in recollection.” A rescue party has been sent out into snow still chest-deep, searching for “a fellow named Lewis Keseberg. The last-known survivor of the Donner Party tragedy.” News has already traveled back to Illinois, back to the lonely families left behind, been whispered from covered wagon to covered wagon: Did you hear about the Donner Party? Dead, all of them, trapped as they attempted to scale an impassable pass. Rescue, held back by snow and wind and storm, arrives too late and comes upon a gruesome scene:

“They’d been told that the survivors had been living in an abandoned cabin and two lean-tos [. …] The cabin stood by itself in a small clearing. It was unmistakably deserted and yet they couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t alone, that someone was waiting for them inside, like something from a fairy story. Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze. A scattering of teeth. What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

How did this start? We know how the Donner Party’s tale ended — with teeth and blood and pain, but how did it start? Follow the families as they set out, up the mountain paths:

“The wagons stretched across the plain in front of Tamsen Donner for as far as she could see. Whoever had first thought to call the pioneers’ wagon ‘prairie schooners’ was quite clever; the canopies did look like the sails of ships, blazing white under the brilliant morning sun.”

The excitement, the expectation of the journey ahead — one hundreds had taken before the Donner Party set out — was still alive in the hearts and minds of the travelers. Then again, they were still alive, too.

Nevertheless, look back through a history of the world, and what do you see? People, across time and culture and faith, pushing forward, outward, onward. Not without dire consequence, often, but not without drastic dreams at the outset, either. The Donners, Lewis Keseberg, the Reed family, the tired pioneers with hungry eyes and swollen bellies, all looking for the same thing out there on the dusty trail west: something more than what they left behind. There were no guarantees of what the West could offer, but rumor, promise, expectation:

“George came to [Tamsen] with the idea to move to California. It’s the land of opportunity, he’d said after reading books written by settlers who’d made the journey. We’ll be rich beyond our wildest dreams.”

Gold, power, land — available to those brave enough to strike out and reach for it. That was enough for the determined, stubborn George Donner, the tenacious, lonely Lewis Keseberg. A whisper on the wind was enough to lead them from the safety of Illinois to the wild of the West. As Tamsen Donner recounts,

“When she talked about the rumors she’d heard about trouble in California […] he dismissed her questions. Americans are moving to California in droves, he’d argued. The government wouldn’t let them go there if it were dangerous.”

And that was that: off they went, into the unknown, a line of white wagons stretching across the hard-packed dirt.

Follow the family now deeper, out onto the trail. Peer over their shoulders into the dark. What do you see there? What did they see? Something out there, and nothing good —

“the wagon train had already suffered misfortune after misfortune: signs, all of them, if you knew how to interpret them. Just last week [they] opened a barrel of flour to find it infested with weevils. The following night, a woman had delivered stillborn. One family lost its entire supply of dried meat to [wolves]. And now, a boy was missing.”

The wolves were blamed, for a time. But the signs of something more sinister at work soon become impossible to ignore. What are the travelers to do? Turn back the way they came, back to what they knew and abandoned once before? No, they have little choice. They must push forward. Into Hell.

The journey continues, and as the travelers wage on through muck and hurt and loss, the journey only becomes more perilous and more … mysterious. Bit by bit, the travelers pull away from one another, withdraw, turn against each other. The whispers on the wind have changed. They are saying something new, something unintelligible, heard as a scratching at the canvas outside the wagon, the cut-off shriek in the dark.

What happens out there? Katsu, with vivid, striking imagery and restless writing, recounts to readers her fictionalized version of one of America’s most disturbing and gruesome tragedies. Drawing heavily from an extensive research of the Donners, the Reeds, and others from the wagon line that set out west so long ago, Katsu delivers an exceedingly entertaining work that encourages a step into the dark, a trip down the rabbit hole from what happened to what if this happened? The jump isn’t far; cannibalism, bloodied knuckles, abandoned wagons, fingers turning black in the snow, all this and more already make up the story of the Donner Party. Rabid wolves, rabid men, rabid ghosts? Not so far off.

The Hunger ultimately leaves the reader, or at least this reader, shivering with delight and a little terror. What really happened out there on the trail, I want to know. The human condition demands answers, explanations for the inexplicable. We can’t leave stones unturned, even when we fear what we might find underneath. We need to know. And when we can’t know for sure, when there do not seem to be explanations to justify the strange we see happening around us, well, then sometimes our minds turn inward, to the dark and unnatural. The bumps in the night, the scratches down our bedroom windows, the taps at the door after everyone is gone and sleeping — what is out there? What is trying to get in? Hearts pumping fast in our chests, breath drawn in tight — we can’t help ourselves. We reach for the window. We have to know what is out there, and so we, shaking, lift up the shade …

And yet, as we cannot know exactly how the adventure played out all those years ago, Katsu has delivered for hungry audiences a delicious, teasing idea of what could have happened. The imagined conversations, the scenes jumping back and forth from real-time accounts on the trail to letters sent and received too late from those who split off, straying from the trail, seeking out another way around the seemingly impenetrable pass. Each scene is carefully crafted and painstakingly detailed. Katsu’s characters come alive on the page, and die just as quickly. Her words, descriptions, characters, and conversations are so full of angst, terror, anger — and you think: just how far from the mark is Katsu when she puts fiction into these long-dead mouths? The scenes, though gruesome and at times entirely fantasized, seem all too real. All too possible. One must wonder, what of this story is the most terrifying part — the things that lurk in the dark with red eyes and gnashing yellow teeth, or what comes before? The slow regression of the men, women, and children alone on the plains. The terrified eyes turning first from the trees and back to each other. Hands slipping to grasp rifle butts, knife handles. The thought: Is what is out there any better than what is in here? It has to be. Oh, please let it be …

This book is more than just an entertaining exploration into history with an unexpected deviation into the supernatural. The fantastic elements of this work are actually what make it. The Hunger ultimately explores what makes us human: the basest parts of ourselves pulled out and examined in the light. Historical fiction often offers us this chance, a means to look back on past mistakes with a clear, objective gaze, but this book goes one step further. We aren’t looking back on the history of the Donner Party as a means to discover what went wrong, what mistakes were made, how we can change so as not to let history repeat itself. We are prying off the tightly sealed lid on this story and imbuing it with new life for the thrill of it, yes, but in doing so, we unearth a new angle on this story, a new cause to give us shivers. This story might be fantastic, we think to ourselves, shutting closed the book, laying it back on the bedside table, but in the real story, the villains are human. Katsu’s book, The Hunger, gives voices to the dead, and those voices are screaming. You might, too, if you read this book. Try it. I dare you.

PAIGE M. FERRO is Deputy Editor at Alternating Current Press. Her fiction has appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and She holds degrees in Creative Writing, Literature, and Spanish from the University of Montana, and her writings focus on Queer Studies. You can find her online at her website.

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Literature to change your lightbulb.

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