February 27, 2010
Impatient with Desire
Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton
Historical Fiction - Epistolary
2010 Voice (Hyperion)
Finished on 2/16/10
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
ARC ~ Due out on March 9th
A great adventure.
A haunting tragedy.
An enduring love.
In the spring of 1846, Tamsen Donner, her husband, George, their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers headed to California on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives out West. Everything that could go wrong did, and an American legend was born.
The Donner Party. We think we know their story—pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive—but we know only that one harrowing part of it. Impatient with Desire brings us answers to the unanswerable question: What really happened in the four months the Donners were trapped in the mountains? And it brings to stunning life a woman—and a love story—behind the myth.
Tamsen Eustis Donner, born in 1801, taught school, wrote poetry, painted, botanized, and was fluent in French. At twenty-three, she sailed alone from Massachusetts to North Carolina when respectable women didn't travel alone. Years after losing her first husband, Tully, she married again for love, this time to George Donner, a prosperous farmer, and in 1846, they set out for California with their five youngest children. Unlike many women who embarked reluctantly on the Oregon Trail, Tamsen was eager to go. Later, trapped in the mountains by early snows, she had plenty of time to contemplate the wisdom of her decision and the cost of her wanderlust.
Historians have long known that Tamsen kept a journal, though it was never found. In Impatient with Desire, Burton draws on years of historical research to vividly imagine this lost journal—and paints a picture of a remarkable heroine in an extraordinary situation. Tamsen's unforgettable journey takes us from the cornfields of Illinois to the dusty Oregon Trail to the freezing Sierra Nevada Mountains, where she was forced to confront an impossible choice.
Impatient with Desire is a passionate, heart-wrenching story of courage, hope, and love in hardship, all told at a breathless pace. Intimate in tone and epic in scope, Impatient with Desire is absolutely hypnotic.
I've been trying to remember if I've ever been to Donner Pass. I lived in Central California (Gridley and Red Bluff) in the late '60s, early '70s. I've skied and camped at Lake Tahoe and driven through Truckee and Reno, so I'm fairly certain I've seen Donner Lake. After reading Impatient with Desire, I find myself wishing that I lived closer to that area so I could visit the Donner Memorial State Park. But only in the warm, summer months! Just reading about the treacherous weather the Donner Party endured (and to which they ultimately succumbed), chilled me to the bone.
I enjoyed Burton's epistolary tale, but felt it could have been better. As noted in the publisher's blurb, the narrative is comprised of imagined journal entries (and actual letters from Tamsen to her sister Betsey) and the details of the expedition unfold in a haphazard fashion. Generally, I don't mind a nonlinear structure, but in this case I would have preferred a more straightforward story. Keeping track of when certain events took place and remembering "who's who" in each family was also a bit confusing. I lost count of all the Jameses, Johns, Williams, Margarets, Eleanors, and Georges who were involved in this journey and found it a bit distracting to have to keep flipping to the front of the book to see who was living in which shelter, who had gone out seeking help, and who had perished (either in the Sierra Nevada Mountains or along the Oregon trail).
On being snowbound:
In the beginning of course we were on ground level, but now we are underground inside walls of snow. We're not sure how much snow has fallen—twenty feet?— but from the poles Jean Baptiste thrusts into the ground, we estimate snowpack at twelve feet. Near the opening of our shelter, we began with three carved snow stairs, and now there are eleven. George figured out an ingenious plan. After a storm, I pace out the number of steps from "the fireplace" to our "front door," then Jean Baptiste, whose stride is not much longer than mine, scrambles up through "the fireplace," paces out the same number of steps across the roof, shovels till he reaches our snow stairs, and then we make more stairs as needed. It sounds easy, but it often takes much of the day because George can no longer shovel and we all move slower now.
Our thoughts are consumed with food. We dream about food. My sister-in-law, Elizabeth, endlessly comes up with more and more elaborate recipes to cook until I think I will go mad. When the children talk about food, I discourage it. "A rasher of bacon," Elitha blurts out. "Oh, wouldn't a rasher of fatty bacon taste heavenly—" "You hated fatty bacon," Leanna says angrily, "Mother had to practically cook it to char to get you to taste it," and Elitha bursts into tears, lamenting all the food she wasted. "We'll have plenty of bacon in California," I say. Then twenty minutes or an hour later, Elitha says, "A fried egg swimming in that bacon grease. That has to be the most perfect food—" "Just keep quiet!" Leanna yells. "Please, children," I say.
We lost most of the cattle in the snow, and the few we found and immediately butchered were so scrawny their meat was quickly gone. For some time we have subsisted on oxen hides.
Impatient with Desire is a story of courage and endurance and I found myself wondering just how far I would go to save not only the lives of children and husband, but my own life. I can certainly sympathize with the desperation these families experienced, but could I resort to cannibalism in order to live?
I set down bowls of stew, and Georgia and Eliza gobbled.
Frances [six-years-old] looks at the chunks of meat suspiciously and then at me.
I look steadily back at her. If she asked, I planned to tell her Jean Baptiste had found an ox in the snow.
She took a spoonful and broke the gaze, and her eyes went blank. She continued to spoon stew into her mouth mechanically, her arm completely detached from wherever she had gone.
I offered George a bowl. He shook his head. "Save it for the children," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks before he turned away.
Dry-eyed, I ate a bowl of gluey ox hide, remembering the December night when Joseph Reinhardt staggered into our shelter and said he was going to Hell.
We're already in Hell.
On the price of emigration and adventure:
All that just to get us here. All that grief and confusion and chicanery and betrayal and carelessness and death just to get us here to these dull, thudding, stuporous, barely noticeable deaths. Our teamsters lay in their shelter deathlike, and when life left there was hardly a difference. Mrs. Wolfinger might as well have been a ghost for all the life she brought us.
All of this we bring with us. "We will carve out a new country," we shouted, not realizing that the new country will be no more and no less than the worst and best of us.
I log deaths. Accidents. When death stalks, do some people go out to meet it? Why do some people lie down and die? How far can a person be pushed until she stops caring about others? I am a schoolteacher doing life and death sums.
This story has taken hold of me and after a week (and the completion of another haunting story), I find my thoughts drifting back to Tamsen Donner and her incredible will to survive. I am intrigued by the story and have my own impatient desire to learn more. I plan to read Gabrielle Burton's Searching for Tamsen Donner, as well as Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West later this year and wonder if I can convince my book group to join me. I can just imagine the intensity of the discussion!
The next time I find myself lamenting the bitter Nebraska cold, I hope I remember instead to rejoice in the fact that I'm living in a cozy, warm house — not a shack or a snow cave, and that rather than being reduced to eating oxen hides (or worse), I have plenty of food: shelves and shelves of canned goods, breads and staples; a refrigerator full of vegetables and meat and milk and fruit. What those poor people wouldn't have given for even half of what I take for granted every day.