Imagine what it would feel like to travel with a wagon train of pioneers, joining the great march to America’s western frontier in 1846. Why would you take such a risk, and how would you cope if the worst happened? Author Gabrielle Burton explores these questions and others in her richly imagined, harrowing tale of death—and survival.
Impatient With Desire, a fictional account of the travails of the very real Donner Party, is framed as a diary kept by Tamsen Donner. Donner was one of 87 actual pioneers who, against the advice of several who had gone before, formed a party of nine wagons that left a much larger wagon train moving west, and struck out on what they had been told was a shortcut to reaching California.
They encountered rivers too swollen to be forged, mud-filled tracks that destroyed their wagons, a desert wasteland, and, at last, terrible snows that imprisoned the party in the Sierras for nearly four months, where nearly half of them perished from cold or starvation.
The story of the historical Donner Party became riveting news after it was learned that in order to survive, some of the party had resorted to eating the flesh of others in their party who had already succumbed. But in this novel, Burton departs from the merely sensational, and explores the fate of the party from a different perspective—that of a woman who, along with her husband, is following a dream shared by thousands at that time: a wanderlust and desire to leave familiar surroundings behind and move on to the edges of what was then an unknown wilderness. Tamsen’s diary captures the pull of this great adventure, in all its combined glory and folly, heady successes and tragic turns.
As her family huddles, close to starvation in the snowbound Sierras, Tamsen describes to her children, who cannot really remember them, the cherry orchards, apple trees and gentle spring breezes in the Illinois town they’ve left behind. The children ask, “Why did we leave?” To this, their parents have no answer, though they have ample time to revisit their decision again and again. Earlier, when given a choice, Tamsen admits they “could not bear to go back.”
Near the end of the diary, Tamsen and her husband sit together, looking out at the spectacular wilderness stretching before them. Tamsen, who has not entirely lost her spirit, reflects, “I knew that behind us lay the shadowed detritus of five months of survival, but our view was spectacular and uplifting.”
Barbara Clark writes from West Yarmouth, Massachusetts.