Lately my to be read stack has been growing dangerously high and slightly ignored. Before heading to a long overdue check-up and physical last week, I grabbed Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner by Gabrielle Burton. After reading some heavy stuff, it looked like a quick read.
I knew nothing about Impatient with Desire when I picked it up. I won it from a long forgotten giveaway and was surprised when it arrived in the mail. Based very loosely off the Donner party’s attempt on the Oregon Trail, this novel is historical fiction with heavy emphasis on the fiction (as mentioned in the author’s notes).
In the winter of 1846, the Donner party became trapped in the mountains on their way to California. The group bunkered down in the mountain with dwindling supplies and a tiny hope of rescue. No one knows what happened while they were trapped in the snowy mountains, but author Gabrielle Burton imagines what it might have been like from Tamsen Donner’s point of view.
Tamsen, whose husband George Donner is the group’s elected captain, begins her journal as letters to her sister. The longer she, her husband, and five daughters are trapped in the mountain, the more she seeks solace in her journal. She describes how desperate they are for sustenance-they cut down the cowhides over their heads to cook and eat. Literally eating the roof over their heads. Later they have to resort to even more drastic measures.
What drew me into this novel was Tamsen Donner herself. As I read her unorganized journal, I began to love her. She was a strong independent woman, even by the standards of 1840s. She was well educated and became a teacher. Her marriage was a marriage of equals. She fought hard to keep her children alive without losing a sense of herself.
If you know the story of the Donner Party, you probably already know what happened to the Donner Party (don’t worry some of them survive), but I won’t spoil it for everyone.
The novel was a quick easy read. I couldn’t put it down once I became invested in Tamsen. The journal/novel does not read chronologically. The author uses Tamsen’s memory to fill in the readers about Tamsen’s past. Some of the stories were from Tamsen’s childhood while others were from their journey thus far on the Oregon Trail. I found it a bit hard to follow and just gave up trying to sort everything out in my head. Later in the novel Tamsen mentions that the binding on her journal falls apart and she gathered the pages as best she could.
Reading Impatient Desire gave me an idea how hard it must have been to traverse halfway across the United States. Their faith in what California had to offer had to be immense in order to give up their cozy life in Illinois and travel for over a year for a better life. Manifest Destiny right?
I guess it was no different than my family leaving Vietnam to come to the United States in 1975.