This week, G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishes the US edition of The Hunger by Alma Katsu. While I’m looking forward to posting a review of the novel for its publication in the UK in early April, I’m delighted to join in the celebrations for the American publication with a guest post by Alma Katsu on the historical background and inspiration for this remarkable and terrifying tale of the Donner Party, based on a true story.
But first a bit of what the novel is about:
Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.
Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.
While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”
‘History and The Hunger‘ by Alma Katsu
I love writing historical fiction. Marrying fact and fiction makes for something especially pleasing to read, I think, something that melds the familiar and comforting to the spicy and unknown.
There’s a challenge there, though. It’s difficult to know how familiar your readers are with the historical event in question. You don’t want to bore readers by telling them what they already know, but you don’t want to assume too much and risk frustrating the reader.
When I first started working on THE HUNGER, I wasn’t sure how much was generally known about the Donner Party. These are the basic facts: two families, the Donners and the Reeds, set out from Springfield, Illinois on April 15, 1846, heading to Independence, Missouri, the “jumping off” point for the trip west. They travel with a much larger party until the split in the trail known as the “parting of the ways” where the Donners and Reeds opt to take the new Hastings Cut-off that promises to shave 300 miles off the trip. They have no way of knowing that the cut-off is little more than a notion in the mind of Lansford Hastings, or that Hastings is a bit of a charlatan, trying to lure settlers to California in order to wrestle the territory away from Mexico.
The Donner Party decides to try their luck. They would not have made this choice if they knew there are over a thousand inhospitable miles ahead. They know the mountain passes will close off once the snow starts, and snow comes early at the higher elevations.
Which is how they come to find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the mountain pass when the snow starts falling and refuses to stop. They try to make it up to the pass but are immobilized. Snow is piled over their heads, over the roofs of their makeshift cabins. They have almost no supplies. Only a few head of livestock survived the punishing trip. There will be no escape until the spring thaw but no one knows when that will be.
There were 90 pioneers at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek when the snow started falling; only 50 will survive.
But there’s a bigger historical context that I tried to capture in The Hunger. In many ways, the story of those pioneers is the story of America. The Donner Party’s story is one of immigrants, of people looking for a better life. But it’s also the story of America’s restless expansionist spirit, the country’s willingness to leave homes and kin, uproot themselves, load their possessions into a wagon, and head into the unknown. Americans had been migrating to the west since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but travel to California was not yet at the epic levels of the Gold Rush and the West was largely uncharted territory. Today, we can only marvel at their confidence, traveling under these conditions with babies and children, the elderly and the sick. They let nothing stop them: some were in poor health, others traveled without wagon or oxen. Some had nothing more than a mule, a few even expected to make the two thousand-mile journey completely on foot.
Americans made the perilous journey because they believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were an exceptional people who were ordained by God to occupy the territory clear to the Pacific Ocean. By settling the West, Americans felt they were fulfilling a long-promised destiny. But it’s not as though this territory was free for the taking. That’s the darker side of America’s expansionist aspirations. Texas’ war for independence emboldened some Americans to think that California, too, could be prized away from Mexico. This was the real reason Lansford Hastings zealously promoted his cut-off: to lure more American settlers to the Mexican-owned territory and, eventually, force America to defend the interests of its citizens. And the darkness doesn’t stop there: trails cut through the middle of Indian Territory. You can’t discuss the Westward Migration without looking at the devastating effect it had on the Native American tribes residing in the Indian Territory. And lastly, it’s also the story of religious freedom. Mormons were starting to look West to build a community after violence had driven them out of Missouri and Illinois.
The Hunger is meant to be a cautionary tale. There are reasons nearly half the wagon party died, lessons we shouldn’t ignore. Some aspects were outside their control—the horrendous weather that winter, for one—but the group let themselves be divided by pettiness and class differences. They let themselves be fooled by businessmen who valued personal profit over human lives. They selected the wrong man to be their leader and refused to listen to the people among them who knew better. They paid for their hubris, yes, but you only need to look around to realize that things haven’t changed that much today, 170 years later.
And this is the true lesson of the Donner Party.
Alma Katsu: Before she started writing novels, Alma Katsu was both a music journalist and an analyst for the likes of CIA and RAND. She has pounded the halls of the Pentagon, been in the West Wing of the White House, and interviewed rock stars. Her novels—The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent (which, oddly enough, have nothing to do with music or national security)—have been published in more than a dozen languages.