Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Hunger, by Alma Katsu

A retelling of the story of the Donner Party with supernatural flourishes.

The Hunger

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018, 376 pages

A tense and gripping reimagining of one of America's most fascinating historical moments: the Donner Party with a supernatural twist.

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the isolated travelers to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They cannot seem to escape tragedy...or the feelings that someone - or something - is stalking them.

Whether it's a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner (who some think might be a witch), their ill-advised choice of route through uncharted terrain, or just plain bad luck, the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are heading into one of one of the deadliest and most disastrous Western adventures in American history. As members of the group begin to disappear, the survivors start to wonder if there really is something disturbing, and hungry, waiting for them in the mountains...and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.

Effortlessly combining the supernatural and the historical, The Hunger is an eerie, thrilling look at the volatility of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.

The Hunger retells the infamous story of the Donner Party, with a supernatural twist.

The Donner-Reed party was a group of pioneers traveling west to California who were stuck in what became known as Donner Pass in the winter of 1846.

Donner Pass

Even today, the Donner Pass can be a perilous drive in the winter. The winter of 1846 was especially bad. The Donner-Reed party, made up of several families totaling about 90 people, was at the tail end of a much larger wagon train, but they decided to take an alternate route, called the Hastings Cutoff. This proved to be a poor decision. They lost many of their cattle and provisions, some families were already low on food when they reached the mountains, and when the group was trapped over the winter, nearly half perished, with some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism.

I jokingly called this "The Oregon Trail written by Stephen King," but that's kind of unfair to Alma Katsu, who has her own writing style which is quite smooth and descriptive and also suitable for the time period. But like King, she fleshes out her characters with backstories describing what their lives were like before, why they're here, and what deep, dark secrets they're carrying. Like King, she frequently does this even for characters who are about to die.

In this case, though, she's using real people. The Hunger is not a fast-paced book where people run into monsters right away, or you're kept in suspense about who will live and who will die. (At least, you won't be in suspense if you look up the history of the Donner Party on Wikipedia.) We already know who's going to live and who's going to die.

What really drives the horror is not the growing sense of the dread and the implication that there are dark forces surrounding them. It's the strife within the families, as desperation, paranoia, and dark secrets consume them. People run out of food, there are men eying other men's wives and daughters, and Katsu creates a lot of fictional drama that is probably unfair to the historical personages she is portraying as adulterous, cursed, greedy and selfish, brutal and violent, or closeted homosexuals.

The descendants of the Donner-Reed party might not appreciate Alma Katsu's fictional embellishments, but I suppose you can't really top the stigma of cannibalism.

James and Margaret Reed

So you might be wondering, what about the horror? When does it turn supernatural?

For much of the book, the reader is teased with hints of paranormal witchery afoot. There is the person who is implied to have a "family curse." There are things implied to be not human, but it's never clear whether the people who see them are hallucinating or imagining things when they encounter strangers in the dark. There is the rather cliched "dangerous Indian tribe that worships dark gods and all the other Indians tell the whites to stay away from them." There is plenty of violence, but Katsu goes to great lengths to keep the reader guessing about what's really out there.

The ending is almost anticlimactic, but given that the book is trying to stay plausibly true to what actually happened, the author could hardly do much else without altering history.

A gritty tale, mixing the truth of what the survivors did to survive, and implied horrors within and without.

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