The Short Take:
Ignore the romance-style title. This imagining of Tamsen Donner’s personal journal of the Donner Party’s western journey and snow-bound entrapment is a fascinating tale of human endurance and frailty. It’s a worthy read.
Burton admits to a certain obsession with Tamsen Donner, wife of the group’s leader, and her book is all the better for it. It’s a thoughtful and detailed look at the hardships faced by early wagon train travelers. By using Tamsen’s supposed journal entries to convey the bulk of the story, Burton gives you access to her protagonist’s deepest secrets, fears, and hopes as well as day-to-day events. This allows for a much richer and more rewarding portrait than simply presenting the facts could ever accomplish.
I was glad to find that Burton did not dwell on the cannibalism that gained this group of people such fame. It is treated straightforwardly as just another defense against starvation — a way to keep one’s children and oneself alive long after normal sustenance has given out and even cattle hides are gone.
The story starts with the Donner Party already stranded in the mountains, waiting out the snowy winter and moves backwards and forwards in time to give you a picture of their entire journey. To give background to her character, Burton also makes use of family letters to explore Tamsen’s upbringing, personality, and innate wanderlust. It all works together quite nicely.
However, I was so put off by the book’s title, I almost let this one slide by. It sure sounded like a bodice-ripper to me. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead Burton has taken a tragic story and given it great context, with worthy empathy for its participants.
A Little Plot:
You basically know this one: A group of families travel by wagon train, headed for California in search of new opportunities.Along the way, some poor choices are made that ultimately result in them being snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the better part of five months. Starvation and death become constant companions.
It’s an unimaginable situation, but Burton does a solid job of helping you see — and feel — what it must have been like.
For more about this book and Gabrielle Burton, click here.