Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton

Impatient With Desire: A Novel (subtitled The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner) by Gabrielle Burton is a historical fiction novel that recreates the story of the final days of the infamous Donner party (known chiefly for cannibalism after a failed attempt in 1847 to go west to California by wagon train) through the diary entries, lists, and remembrances of Tamsen Donner, the doomed wife of the elected party leader, George Donner.

For the most part, The Donner Party has been a footnote in the history that I grew up learning, tittered at because of the ignominious destiny befalling the would be pioneers. Human cannibalism has a way of stopping deep speculation into its mystique, preventing us from looking beyond the taboo nature of the act to the desperate circumstances that drive the ultimate final step of consuming the corpse of another human being.

Burton chose to present the story in non-linear fashion, beginning as the party is already stranded in the mountains and fearful of their fate. This was jarring for me initially, and it was hard to get past the jumpiness of the narrative which boasted a large cast of characters, similar names (a fair amount of those making the journey were related) lists accounting for the dead and seemingly nonsensical fragments of diaries, remembrances and unfinished letters.

I had to go back a lot to see who was being discussed at any given time. I wondered if it was an effective approach to take based on the confusion it caused, but as the story progresses and the lay of the land is established, it became easier to read. I appreciate really getting a sense of what Tamsen’s life was like, and how the new horrors and difficulties of her journey sparked memories of either better times or the precipitating incident which forced particular choices among the group. Impatient With Desire chiefly examines the way people come together and come apart in extreme situations. Handmaiden to death and despair were festering resentment, misplaced opportunity, selfishness, greed but also love, steadfastness and loyalty. I was touched by the decisions and sacrifices that some made for others, the efforts to sustain civilized ways in brutal surroundings and how mothers aimed to protect and then choose among their children for survival.

Burton has done painstaking research into Tamsen and the Donner party and even though Tamsen’s diary was never found, Burton does an excellent job of amalgamating the available records and facts into an extremely plausible construction of Tamsen’s last few month with her family. There isn’t one thing that failed and put them all in the situation that they found themselves in, but many things – trusting the wrong information, choosing to travel with the elderly and many small children (slowed them down considerable), and attempting a trail that had yet to be fully vetted were carefully considered amongst the group. What they chose proved to be unlucky. Tamsen’ journal as presented by Burton wove these elements into a compelling novel. Recommended.

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