The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a tense and gripping reimagining of one of America's most fascinating historical moments, the Donner Party, with a supernatural twist.
Anyone who’s taken a US History class has most likely heard of the Donner Party and knows exactly why this band of pioneers seeking to settle in California is famous above all others: cannibalism. It’s a word that frightens us to our very core and yet also fascinates us, grabbing hold of that morbid curiosity that we feel about things that defy societal standards. Alma Katsu’s novel The Hunger clings very close to the truth as she delves deep into the story of the families that banded together to move out West before it was settled and laces it with just enough of the supernatural to make an already perilous situation even more chilling.
The Hunger is told from a myriad of viewpoints. Charles Stanton is a bachelor looking to leave a tragic past behind. Tamsen Donner, the wife of party leader George Donner, is a vain woman who seems to take more pride in her looks than in her family; she believes in superstition and witchcraft and is a social pariah because of it. Mary Graves is a daughter from a large family, an innocent in love. Edwin Bryant is a writer who might be a little too obsessed with local Indian lore. Elitha Donner is one of Tamsen’s step-daughters who can hear the dead speak. And James Reed, the other party leader, has a secret he’d kill to protect.
We think we know how this story will end, so it’s up to the characters to drive it. Katsu’s accounting of each of their tragic histories is more than up to the task. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but each new terrifying encounter with the things in the shadows that haunt and hunt them brings new tension. This creates a sense of claustrophobia as personal disputes among the characters combine with harsh terrain and even harsher weather as we steer away from the wide open spaces of the unsettled West and focus on these families—who were strangers before they came together on the trail—and their desperate measures to survive.
It all begins when a little boy goes missing. Tension has already been mounting as each member of the party jockeys for social standing in this little village on wheels. Some families have more than others, and jealousy has put an edge on things. Stanton can’t keep his mind off of the beautiful Tamsen, and Bryant is already making plans to go his own way when the word comes down the line about the boy.
There isn’t time to waste looking for him, however. One of the main arguments among the party members is how late of a start they’d gotten. Winter would soon be on them, and they must keep going to get through the mountain passes before the snow falls. It seems cruel not to wait, but they’d already been plagued by wolves, and it’d be crueler still to subject the 80-odd members to certain death later down the road to look for a boy who’d likely already met that fate. When they find the body six miles down the path, it’s pretty clear it wasn’t wolves. And whatever it was, it was hungry.
Despite the expert intertwining of history and the supernatural, I was a bit disappointed in the portrayal of some of the women. I’m not sure—given the fictional nature of this work—that the facts of history needed to be clung to so strictly. Certainly, women—especially smart, beautiful women—were not often looked upon kindly, but I found it disappointing that Tamsen was automatically labeled a witch and held at the edges of society because of it. She certainly had her faults—which had nothing to do with her beliefs—and people, especially women, already suffer enough persecution without bringing into it perfectly benign beliefs that are still practiced to this day. Tamsen’s arc is complex and evolves beautifully as the story progresses. There’s no need to perpetuate the myth that all witches are wicked when her story would have gone just fine without the label. Additionally, it’s known historically that more women survived the Donner Party’s trials than men. I only wish that at least one of them could have survived this story without either relying on a man or sacrificing herself to one.
Katsu’s plot really does not stray from the facts as we know them about the Donner Party and their eventual fate. And though we only have glimpses of the things in the shadows, it’s only in knowing they are there, hungry and waiting, that imbues the story with a fear that just never lets up. The question that can be asked at every turn is: are those monsters real, or are they imagined by hungry desperate people looking for a demon to blame for their own sins? It’s the humans that might scare us most here as the story ends with a twist that I certainly didn’t see coming.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.