When I was in fifth grade in a small town in Nebraska, we played the Oregon Trail game. Players "traveled" across the trail, rolling the dice and drawing cards to get a remote idea of what the movement across this nation meant--from the perspective of the emigrants, of course. I missed a couple days of school at one point during the game, and I remember being really upset to learn when I came back that being gone left me stuck in the mountains for the winter.
Even then, I knew what that meant.
The Donner Party. 1846-1847. (In)famous. The stuff of legend. The material for heartless jokes about cannibalism.
Gabrielle Burton has taken the story we think we know, delved deeply into the history of the group, and written a fantastic piece of sensitive, moving historical fiction, Impatient with Desire (2010). Written as though Tamsen Eustis Donner's lost journal survived, the words--the hopes and excitement, the fears, the mounting loss of life--all come through to provide thoughtful insight into what might have happened.
Burton even gives a plausible explanation of something I never understood--Tamsen's decision to stay with her husband George when their three young--6, 4, and 3--daughters left to join their older half-sisters, already gone in an earlier rescue attempt. Maybe I always sort of understood about not wanting to leave George to die alone, but I always came back to, "How can you leave the children as orphans? How could you expect them to survive, alone in California?"
Burton's Tamsen is a woman of strength, courage, intelligence, and spirit. I suspect Burton's correct that Tamsen couldn't tolerate a repeat of her first husband's death, fifteen years earlier in North Carolina, with his dying calls for her left unanswered while she went to fetch the doctor. The Tamsen as described in this book also, I truly believe, expected to be reunited with her children after doing her duty by her husband.
After all, she lived--and, more importantly, kept the children alive--through over four months of unbearable cold, starvation, and deaths all around her. Why wouldn't she be able to stay long enough to honor her husband at the time of his death and still get to the children later?
Heartbreaking choices, including many misdecisions on the journey, especially taking the shortcut that left them caught in the mountains, and no easy answers--not even with the benefit of hindsight from 164 years later.
You can learn more from an article in The Huffington Post about the current speculation over whether cannibalism actually happened with the Donner Party. (You'll find yourself realizing how very little that titillating tidbit, often seen as central to the Donner Party's experience in many of the retellings, even matters as you read this book.) Plus there's much more at the author's site here.
My personal rating of Impatient with Desire is an A.