An inventive reimagining of a grisly chapter in American history.
Westward migration, murder, sensation: the story of the Donner Party has all this, which makes it, in its way, a quintessentially American story. This imaginative retelling of the group’s journey communicates the fatal naiveté of people who thought they could carry their comfortable lives across deserts and mountains, as well as the particular horrors that befell the families who followed George Donner. The wide-open spaces of the West feel closed in here, as there is nothing but danger and desolation beyond the tents and fires of the wagon train. By focusing on a few figures, Katsu creates a riveting drama of power struggles and shifting alliances as bad fortune befalls these travelers. Not surprisingly, each of her central characters has a past that he or she is trying to escape, and these pasts are intertwined. This serves to create a sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that the coming tragedy isn’t just an accident of bad weather and poor leadership, but a matter of fate. And this is all before the ravaged bodies start appearing….As they stumble across corpses that appear to be sacrifices, as they confront their own gruesome losses, the settlers don’t know if the evil stalking them comes from within or without. Is the need for human flesh a communicable disease or a hereditary curse? Or is the wilderness filled with monsters? The tensions Katsu creates are thrilling. The final act of the novel, though, fails to deliver. There’s a surfeit of back story, and confessions and revelations that should be shocking fall flat, largely because they’re obvious. And, most unfortunately, the cannibalism—the thing that makes the Donner Party the Donner Party in history and popular consciousness—becomes boring. The conflicting theories the novel puts forward collapse into confusion, and it turns out that the idea of people desperate enough to break a nearly universal taboo is more interesting than any of the exotic explanations Katsu conjures.
Two-thirds of a terrific book.