Galloway, previously in evidence as a flip, uneven novelist of transvestitism and sex-reversal (Melody Jones; Lamaar Ransom,...



Galloway, previously in evidence as a flip, uneven novelist of transvestitism and sex-reversal (Melody Jones; Lamaar Ransom, Private Eye), here offers a long, densely researched reconstruction of the luckless Donner Party journey--focusing on George Donner's wife Tamsen, mixing a variety of narrative techniques, but failing to achieve much fictional shape or point. Tamsen Eustis, born in 1801, the favored child of a doting father who taught her everything from Greek to botany, becomes the third (and devoted) wife of widower George Donner after she loses her first husband and two children to cholera. In 1846, when Tamsen is 45, she and 62-year-old George leave Springfield, Illinois, in company with their three daughters, two of Donner's daughters by a former wife, other relatives and friends--all bound for the balmy, ague-free life of California. (Mary Todd Lincoln, an odd woman affecting French, bids them Ben Voyage.) But the comforts of bountiful midwestern farm-life are soon stripped away on the trail, while learned Tamsen explains an eclipse, gathers botanical specimens, doctors the sick and pregnant, and--being a spirited woman who puts the best face on things--writes cheerful letters home about the pleasures of traveling. Other migrants (mostly unpleasant Germans) swell the dawdling caravan to about 80. George makes some mistakes in judgment. Then it snows--with the party trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So, before spring rescue parties reach them, about half the party has perished, though some (including Tamsen) survive for a time by eating the dead. And, after she nobly sends her children to safety and stays behind with dying George, Tamsen too comes to a bad end: when last seen she is being dismembered by the least pleasant German, who sets ""almost gleefully to work, thinking of the fine breakfast that would begin his day."" Galloway tells some of this story in straight, novelistic fashion; Tamsen's journals and letters (which provide anvil-heavy irony) are interpolated. At other times, however, the approach is that of an historian studying the documentary materials which have survived. At still other times the narration becomes thickly pretentious--clotted with images (especially when the travelers' sex-lives are involved) or sliding off into pages of Tamsen's stream-of-consciousness/memory musings. (""The smells belong to the men earth and wet straw and sharp acid air in the barn strange and foreign still to me but good especially gathering eggs warm and curved to the palm still warm sometimes streaked with pinfeather fluff clutching it perfect and whole like a darning egg but alive and the yolks stand high. . . ."" etc.) And, despite some portentous announcements--""In that instant she knew, and with a sureness that his words could never have achieved, that the treacherous journey of which he dreamed was a crusade against death itself""--Tamsen's ordeal never takes on dramatic or psychological force. A few grimly effective re-creations along the way--but, for all its hard-working elaborations, less gripping (and, often, far duller) than a non-fiction treatment.

Pub Date: May 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983