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The Hunger by Alma KatsuUK edition3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHistory is already so full of horrors that the human race has inflicted upon itself that it scarcely seems necessary to revisit real-life tragedies of the past in order to put a supernatural spin on them. But when historical horror fiction is well executed, it can, like the best fiction generally, illuminate the inner heroism or evil of those who endured such tragedies in order to produce something both deeply unsettling and redemptive. Dan Simmons’ The Terror reimagined the disastrous Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage as not only resulting from incompetent leadership and planning, but as karmic retribution on the part of an Inuit bear deity for the expedition’s encroachment on the lands of indigenous peoples.

After a fashion, this is what’s going on in Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, a retelling of the notorious Donner Party tragedy. In the spring of 1846, 60-year-old George Donner and his family, including children from a previous marriage and some teamsters and employees, joined a massive train of 500 wagons leaving Independence, Missouri, for Oregon and California. As the wagon train passed through Wyoming on its way through Ft. Laramie, the train received letters informing them of a “shortcut” through the Sierra Nevadas called the Hastings Cutoff, which, it was claimed, would reduce the journey by 350 miles and avoid rugged terrain and hostile encounters with Native American tribes. Pretty much all of this was the opposite of true, promoted by a charlatan. While the bulk of the wagon train opted to follow the established route, Donner and fellow traveler James Reed broke off their own smaller group of wagons to take the Hastings Cutoff.

What followed is one of history’s genuine horror stories, with the party eventually stranded in the Sierra Nevadas as the snow piled up over 20 feet deep and supplies ran out. Furthermore, most of the so-called “pioneers” in the Wagons West expansion were not exactly rugged outdoorsmen with a strong skill set for hunting and trapping and living off the land. Many, like Donner, were comfortable urbanites and businessmen, with wives and children in tow. Unable to find game in the increasingly harsh temperatures and impassable terrain, only 48 of the 87 members of the Donner/Reed train survived, some of them infamously resorting to cannibalizing their family members.

With a saga of woe and desperation as intense as that, adding an element of supernatural horror seems almost laughably superfluous. Alma Katsu gives it a good effort, however, making the interesting choice of steering her story’s horror elements away from the supernatural and closer towards the realm of science. The germ theory of disease was still a fairly radical idea in the mid-19th century, not widely accepted by doctors, and so to the people living at the time, such an outbreak could very well seem demonic in nature, especially if it turned its victims into bloodthirsty crazed rage zombies.

Katsu’s extensive research allows her to bring life to historical characters, with only a handful of purely invented characters for the sake of dramatic license. George Donner’s younger wife, Tamsen, is portrayed as something of a Jezebel who conceals her knowledge of herbal remedies and the like so that no one will accuse her of witchcraft, while Donner’s eldest daughter Elitha begins hearing the voices of the dead emanating from the surrounding forests. Other viewpoint characters include journalist Edwin Bryant, on a personal quest to document as many Native cultures as he can, and who, in the book as in real life, went on ahead of the party and unsuccessfully tried to send word back warning them to avoid the Hastings Cutoff at all costs.

But in the novel, signs of horror begin to appear early on, when the wagoneers are so confident of success that they’re burning through their supplies like it isn’t even a thing. First, a little boy goes missing, his body found several miles ahead stripped literally to the skeleton. Some of the men fear wolves, but only Bryant is knowledgable enough to be fairly certain that wolves don’t drag their prey for miles and miles before devouring it so completely.

Katsu’s plot follows the known historical record pretty impressively in terms of the order of events, and she allows her own horror elements to lurk in the background most of the time, providing an undercurrent of something just a bit more sinister than mere deprivation. It’s an effective approach, and the story hits on several true events while adding fictional elements for backstory. Some of these work well, while others are of dubious value. James Reed, who led the party for much of the journey, was in reality banished for killing a teamster named John Snyder, a banishment that ironically saved his life and spared him the fate that befell everyone else. Katsu, perhaps unnecessarily, invents a sordid past between the two men that leads to their fateful confrontation. Charles Stanton, one of the party’s single male travelers, is given a deep personal tragedy in Missouri to be fleeing from. Lewis Keseberg, one of the survivors, is here portrayed as a pure sociopath, his behavior attributed to the possibility he might very well be Patient Zero in the outbreak that’s slowly burning its way through the party.

The story does end on a redemptive note, and on the whole, Katsu’s attention to both historical and character details makes The Hunger both a disturbing and compassionate examination of human resilience in the face of catastrophe. In the end, perhaps no work of fiction about the Donner Party could be as gripping and powerful as a well-told nonfiction account — and there are a few out there right now you can check out, such as Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above and Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven — but in The Hunger, Alma Katsu effectively employs fiction to peer into historical fact, and connect us to the people who loved and lost everything in a battle against nature they could never win.