“Why are we drawn to it? Because it’s the American dream turned nightmare? Because we wonder what we would have done had we been there? We make up stories to try to find explanations to mysteries.”
This is how Gabrielle Burton, in her author’s note of Impatient with Desire, explains why exploration, even fictional, of the events and emotions that plagued the ill-fated Donner Party is so captivating. There is much speculation and little solid fact known about the Donner Party, but historians do know that Tamsen Donner kept a journal, which has never been recovered.
Burton, compelled by her obsession with Tamsen Donner, an unlikely heroine she stumbled across in the late 1970s, birthed this expertly crafted novel, a fictional creation of what Tamsen’s journal may have been like.
Tamsen, a woman eager to explore, to experience the unknown, decides, with her husband George Donner, to pack up their family, leave their comfortable home and head west to California, the new frontier. The spring of 1846 begins with high hopes and excited hearts.
Propelled by hope and wanderlust, none of the 80 pioneers of the Donner Party imagine that things will not go as planned. Many will not survive, and those left alive will stare the reality of survival in the face. And each act of heroism, each fateful decision, each death and every emotion is faithfully recorded by Tamsen.
In this tragic and beautiful novel, Burton explores the depths of the human soul when faced with unthinkable circumstances. The narrative moves back and forth through time, but focuses mainly on the four winter months that the pioneers spend trapped in the mountains.
Tamsen Donner, a steadfast woman with fathomless strength, is an intriguing character. Knowing the inevitable outcome of the story does not detract from the glory of the heart-wrenching journey. The base subject of cannibalism is handled with grace and is not the main focus of the story.
Burton delves into the thoughts and emotions of Tamsen so expertly and so deeply that the reader cannot help but groan in sympathy and ache for all those involved in the tragedy. This memorable book should be in the hands of any historical fiction fan.
Rated: Mild for brief references to cannibalism and violence.