Bantam Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is the summer of 1846 and a wagon train of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, has left it late to cross the Sierra mountains on their way to the promised lands of California. After weeks of crossing hot and dusty prairie, they must make a decision but may well be perilous. They can either take a well-documented and trusted path or they can take the Hastings Cutoff, a route believed to be shorter. Donner makes the decision and it is one that will have devastating consequences for this wagon train of men, women and children – lots of children. The winter of 1846 and 1847 brings hell on earth to the Donner Party.
As the weather closes in and the terrain gets too tough for these heavily laden wagons, tempers fray but that’s the least of their problems. There isn’t enough food to get them through the winter, there are frightening rumours about fierce Indians stalking them from the hills, and then members of the group begin to disappear. Now and again they find what’s left of them. People have different ideas about the best way to survive. It’s clear not all of them will make it. And some of them can hear things from the forest. They know they are being watched.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fine meld of historical fiction and horror. It’s based on a true story that lends itself so well to both (see also my review of October Skies by Alex Scarrow). The Donner Party did indeed get trapped by the weather and mountains and many of them died in circumstances that horrified society – how far did these poor souls go to survive? Alma Katsu delves deeper and she presents a tale as gripping as it is utterly horrifying. This is a novel that made me want to sleep with the lights on.
What makes this novel stand out for me, though, isn’t the horror (although it is delicious), it’s the depiction of the wide range of people that made up this wagon train. Probably close to a hundred in number, we’re made familiar with a fair few of them and for some we’re given tasters of their previous history – we’re given flashbacks of a time when life was normal and this trip to California seemed so exciting and worthwhile. I particularly loved the portraits of the women, most of whom had no say in the decision to travel west and some of them barely knew their husbands. Some women, or girls I should say, married along the way, regardless of their own desires. The wives and daughters are chattels, every bit as much as the cattle they drive across the plains. If any women do make a stand then they are viewed with suspicion as having loose morals, perhaps even witches. Tamsen Donner is presented as one such woman. But there are other girls and women here who also grab our attention – there are so many. I loved reading about them.
It’s the men who have destiny in their hands – or so they believe – and so we also meet some of them. Stanton is arguably our main character, a young man yet to marry due to tragic circumstances. He’s not alone in being haunted by the past. Stanton is torn between fighting to survive by going off alone or staying with the group to protect the women and children. I did like the character of James Reeve especially and some of the finest writing is preserved for his fate. If I have any complaint at all it is perhaps that there are too many characters here to follow. I don’t have the best of memories and so I had to keep flicking through the pages to remember who was who. But this is such a minor point because each of the characters is drawn so well. And then there are the monsters…. You must discover those for yourself.
The Hunger is a beautifully written novel. It conjures up the plains, mountains and forest of this seemingly endless and perilous journey. We experience the heat and then the cold, the effort to remain clean, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the chill. It’s all described so well, and so too are the reactions of the pioneers to their surroundings. They fear it. Everything is an obstacle to where they want to be. And I loved hearing about all of the different reasons for this tremendous journey.
This is, I’m pleased to say as this is a horror novel after all, a frightening story and it’s told so well. It’s rich in historical detail and vivid in its horror. I found The Hunger extremely hard to put down. It’s one of those books where you think that you’ll read just one more chapter but end up reading half the book. The shifting between characters and the movement from the present to the past and back again in flashbacks, as well as the insertion of letters, is done very effectively. This is an accomplished, confident and memorable novel. I read most of it very late at night by low lamplight. I can recommend that.