My whole heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. When anyone ever went anyplace, I always wondered: What will they see? What is there that is not here? What waits for them that I am missing?
I cannot bear it if no one knows what has gone on here. What I have seen. What was waiting for me here that I have not missed. – from the ARC of Impatient With Desire, page 204 –
The story of the Donner Party is well known – a group of 87 pioneers set out for California by wagon train in 1846, but became stranded in the Sierra Nevada, high in the mountains near Truckee, California. Their decision to take a new cut-off (called the Hastings cutoff) delayed their passage west and an early snowfall trapped them in the desolate wilderness just shy of their goal. Forced to spend more than four months in the wilderness, all but 48 perished from starvation and illness. Several survivors resorted to cannibalism after they ran out of oxen and buffalo hides to eat.
Although many have written of the Donner Party and created websites specifically about the ill-fated journey, few have attempted to create an historical novel focused on any of the individuals. Gabrielle Burton has imagined letters and journal entries written by Tamsen Donner and written Impatient With Desire – a novel focused on the Donner family themselves (including their five children) and narrated by Tamsen.
The novel focuses on one family, George and Tamsen Donner and their five daughters, with the hope that the reader will understand other pioneers through them. The voice is that of Tamsen Donner, a heroine I chanced upon in the early 1970s while writing an apprentice novel about an unrelated subject. – from the Author’s Note about Impatient with Desire, page 237 of the ARE –
Burton’s novel is nonlinear in nature – first placing the reader with the stranded and desperate party, and then moving back and forth in time to give information about not only the journey itself, but the history of the characters prior to their decision to move west. Tamsen’s voice is clear and compelling – heard through her letters to her sister Betsy as well as through the imagined journal entries. Burton brings to life a woman who yearned to see what had not yet been seen, an explorer who could not silence the wanderlust within herself. The risks of moving across a country which had been mostly uncharted were great – Indian attacks, accidents, illness…and for the Donner Party, the unpredictable weather and a new trail which took them through the rugged and nearly impassable Wasatch Mountain range.
Burton successfully captures the plight of the pioneers through Tamsen’s voice.
In the beginning of course we were on ground level, but now we are underground inside walls of snow. We’re not sure how much snow has fallen – twenty feet? – but from the poles Jean Baptiste thrusts into the ground, we estimate the snowpack at twelve feet. – from the ARE of Impatient with Desire, page 99 –
This novel is less about the facts of the Donner Party journey (although those are there), but more about the people who experienced it – specifically, the women who made the journey. By focusing on letters and journal entries, Burton has provided the opportunity for readers to understand the possible thoughts and emotions of the pioneers who headed west in search of adventure and land. The novel gives insight into the dreams of those who paved the way for future generations.
Impatient with Desire does not spare its readers the desperation of its characters. At times it is hard to read as Tamsen records the deaths of each person in her Bible. Those who know the history behind the novel cannot help but dread the death of George, Tamsen’s husband who shared her dreams. But despite the sadness behind the novel, it was also an exhilarating read. I was left feeling tremendous respect and awe for those individuals who had the courage and fortitude to strike out into the wilderness, knowing the risks, but believing in a better life for themselves and their families.
Readers who love historical fiction and who are interested especially in the women of history, will enjoy Impatient with Desire. Richly imagined and heartbreaking, this is a novel I can recommend.
FTC Disclosure: This Advanced Readers Edition was sent to me from the publisher via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program for review on my blog.