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“Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.”
– Vesta M. Kelly  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 12 December 2018  

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  “The Hunger”
  By Robin Widmar

   Many people know of the ill-fated Donner Party solely because of its legacy of cannibalism. Following a series of misfortunes and poor decisions, the 90-member wagon train became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846-1847.
   
   Trapped by deep snow and out of food, some members of the group eventually resorted to eating human flesh in order to survive. There is more to this story, though, than just a horrific end for dozens of men, women and children. These were real, imperfect people with hopes, dreams and ambitions.
   
   Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” is a fictional rendition of the Donner Party’s grim saga. It goes beyond examining human motivation and conflict by introducing a supernatural element: What if other worldly forces exacerbated the pioneers’ misfortunes and ultimately led to the deaths of more than half of their group?
   
   June 1846: The wagon train has gotten a late start. Charles Stanton and Edwin Bryant are frustrated by its slow pace and delays that could prevent them from crossing the mountains before winter. Part of the problem lies with the amount of goods that families are hauling. Bryant notes, “What made them think they could bring their entire households with them to California?”
   
   There is yet another delay when a young boy goes missing. The discovery of his mutilated remains sends fear rippling through the wagon train. Was he the victim of wolves? Indians? Could there even be a killer walking among them? Stanton recalls his grandfather saying that evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.
   
   Following that incident, young Elitha Donner, daughter of leader George Donner, reveals a note she had filched from an abandoned trapper’s cabin two days earlier. It was one of hundreds of letters left by westbound travelers, all waiting to be transported by the next person headed east. The note simply reads, “Turn back or you will all die.”
   
   This is not the last warning the Donner Party will ignore. At Fort Laramie, they are advised against taking a shortcut known as the Hastings Cutoff to shave both time and miles off their journey. Later, even the man who discovered the shortcut tells members of the wagon train to turn back, but not because of the route’s difficulty. “It’s something else entirely,” he says. “There’s something following us.” But the Donner Party unwisely breaks away from a larger wagon train and continues on its disastrous course.
   
   Provisions are dwindling and game animals are surprisingly scarce. The route crosses a vast desert for which they are not prepared. More mysterious disappearances, deaths and outbreaks of violence in the group add to mounting fear and tension. Conflicts arise over leadership, sharing food and the abandonment of worldly goods to ease the burden on struggling oxen. Amid rumors of native tribes conducting human sacrifices and men who can change into animals, shadowy beings hover just beyond the light of nightly bonfires.
   
   Then, the Donner Party becomes stuck on the wrong side of the mountains in “an ever-deepening landscape of snow and ice.”
   
   Some members attempt to push across the pass while the rest remain where they are. None of it ends well. To say more would lead to spoilers, particularly where the mystery creatures are concerned.
   
   “The Hunger” has a broad cast of intriguing characters based on many of the real people involved. Among them is Tamsen Donner (the beautiful second wife of George Donner), whose dabbling in talismans and herbal remedies lead her fellow travelers to believe she is a witch. Former furniture seller James Reed steps up as the party leader when George Donner is gravely injured, but he is later banished for murder. Lewis Keseberg is a contentious German immigrant with a temper. They all come from different backgrounds, and many hide the secrets that have driven them west.
   
   “The Hunger” is a good story with solid writing and even pacing. The ending is more like a soft landing in a snowbank than a headlong rush down an icy slope. However, twists that readers likely will not see coming make for a satisfying conclusion. The author’s extensive research helps paint a clear picture of the hardships that pioneers –- and this group in particular –- faced in their pursuit of better lives.
   
   But Katsu also infuses her tale with hope, which at times is the only thing the beleaguered Donner Party has going for it. Readers will find themselves pulling for the characters, perhaps even hoping for a different outcome despite knowing how the gruesome story ends.
   
   Because of the occasionally graphic scenes, some online reviewers suggest not reading “The Hunger” before bedtime. I would go a step further and recommend that sensitive readers avoid reading before dinnertime, too.
  
 
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