The Blurb On The Back:
After having travelled west for weeks, the party of pioneers comes to a crossroads. It is time for their leader, George Donner, to make a choice. They face two diverging paths which lead to the same destination. One is well-documented – the other untested, but rumoured to be short. His decision will shape the lives of everyone travelling with him
The searing heat of the desert gives way to biting winds and a bitter cold that freezes the cattle where they stand. Driven to the brink of madness, the ill-fated group struggles to survive and minor disagreements turn into violent confrontations. Then the children begin to disappear. As the survivors turn against each other, a few begin to realise that the threat they face reaches beyond the fury of the elements to something more primal, and far more deadly …
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s June 1846 and a group of around 90 pioneers who set out from Independence, Missouri are making their way to California in search of land and a chance to make their fortune under the leadership of George Donner, a wealthy landowner who is taking his wife Tamsen and their children in search of fresh opportunity. Among the party are Charles Stanton (a man seeking his own fresh start after having sold his store), Edwin Bryant (a medical man turned journalist who seeks contact with the Indian tribes along the route as he wants to learn more of their culture), and James Reed (who has brought his family with him in an attempt to flee a secret and who jostles with Donner for leadership of the group).
But it isn’t long before mishaps start to occur that slow their progress. A child wanders away from the camp in the dead of night and is found dead, his body devoured by wild beasts and when they reach Fort Bridger they find that Lansford Hastings (the man who promised to accompany them across a new, shorter trail) has gone on ahead without them. Donner must decide whether to go after him or instead follow the safer, longer route. Donner’s decision will have fatal repercussions for the group, for they are not alone on their path to California – there is something following them, watching them, and it hungers …
Alma Katsu uses the real-life tragedy of the Donner Party and adds a supernatural twist to form an engaging horror novel that creates a real sense of dread and foreboding (but also sadness and pity) while at the same time making full-use of the actual horrors that the pioneers encountered although the large cast of characters means that at times the horror is spread too thinly to be as effective as it could be.
Katsu has clearly done her research on this historic event and expertly weaves actual members of the party with original characters of her own creation (an acknowledgements section at the back sets out who is who). I really enjoyed her reimagining of some of the historical people – including Tamsen Donner, Charles Stanton and Lewis Keesberg – as she gives them new backgrounds and sets their hopes and fears against what fast becomes a nightmare journey while at the same time weaving in historic connections between them that add an extra layer for the reader although I do wonder at some of their choices and whether there are any descendants of the party who may be upset by them. However there is a large cast here – at times perhaps too large – with the result that it was difficult to empathise with all of the point of view characters and their respective plights and there’s no postscript setting out what actually happened to each of the real people, which I would have welcomed.
There is a great sense of period with Katsu doing well at conveying the hardships and literal life and death decisions that have to be made by the pioneers and she does a great job of ratchetting up the tension as the party turns against itself with the families spoiling for fights with each other and allegiances being formed and broken. I also thought that she treated the indigenous tribes mentioned in the book with empathy without shying away from what the white people of the time thought of them although I did think that Thomas (an Indian boy who was converted to Christianity) deserved more page time than he gets, especially given his friendship with Tamsen’s step-daughter, Elitha.
The horror element is well done with Katsu wisely keeping the nature of the trouble hidden until the final quarter. I enjoyed the way she ties it in both with traditional legend and superstition while also giving the new discoveries in medicinal theory a chance to add a new dimension.
All in all, I thought this was a chilling read that stays true to the tragedy of the real events and as such I will definitely be checking out Katsu’s other work on the strength of this.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.