Book: “The Hunger” by Alma Katsu
Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.
Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.
While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”
Review: Back in college I took a super awesome Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature course called Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs. In this class we would read horror and science fiction books and texts and then put them in the context of the time period and place that they were written. When we were focusing on stories about zombies and “Night of the Living Dead”, or historical comparison was that of The Donner Party. Having had a fascination with The Donner Party since grade school. My first encounter with it was a particular Far Side comic that my mother had to explain to me….
The next encounter was a TV movie called “One More Mountain”, which starred Meredith Baxter as Margaret Reed, one of the survivors of the whole ordeal. From then on I was hooked. So back to college: I remember going to that class the day we were learning about it with a whole lot of food to share with my classmates (and trying to troll my professor, who was my very favorite and was very tolerant of my edgy, and no doubt obnoxious, sense of humor). Had that class been taught today, I think that Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” would be the perfect text for the syllabus. Not only does it cover some very solid ground within what actually happened to that tragic wagon train, it adds a whole new element of horror and suspense by throwing in a supernatural twist.
It should be noted first and foremost that Katsu did some extensive research to write this book, even going so far as to retracing the route the Donner Party took as best she could (as the road by car doesn’t take the exact path). So she knows what she is talking about when it comes to the ultimate fates and broad stroked experiences of the people within the group. Because of this, even had there not been a supernatural element, “The Hunger” is gripping, visceral, and feels very, very real. While she may take some liberties here and there to make some of the players more vibrant (and she addresses some of this within her author’s notes), the characters are very relatable to the modern reader, many of them experiencing problems and hardships that many people still face today. Just goes to show that some things like abuse, misogyny, racism, and Othering are timeless, sadly. The details that Katsu put into this book, from the cast of players to the setting itself, were meticulous, and I was sucked into the story easily and felt like I could clearly see everyone and the settings that they found themselves as they moved west. I could picture the prairie, the mountains, and all the problems of the environment that they came to face, especially when the snow began to fall. Along with a traditional narrative, the story is also slowly unfolded through flashbacks at the end of each chapter (usually focusing on a certain character), and then letters that are written mostly by Edwin Bryant, who had gone off ahead of the Party and has possibly discovered some dark realities. The way all of these pieces come together is deeply satisfying, and Kutsu is skilled at making sure they weave together in precise ways.
The unique part of this book that really grabbed me was the horror element. We don’t really know WHAT it is that is plaguing the Donner Party as they make their way, as Katsu is sure to be vague outside of the reveal as to what the origin is (but that would be a spoiler, so I won’t go into details beyond that). But that is part of the horror in and of itself. I loved the descriptions of figures moving in the woods, and the descriptions of the body horror that some of the members start to experience. Katsu derives the supernatural element from many different sources, from folklores from around the world, to superstitions, to implications about illness and madness. What we do know is that something is following The Donner Party as it goes up into the mountains, and that it’s wreaking havoc, sometimes unknowingly. And Katsu does play with some unreliable elements to the story: is this force doing the most damage, or are the people doing far more damage to themselves because of madness, greed, and desperation? What if the absolute and worst horrors in this book are the violent and merciless people, especially once they are driven into a corner.
But there is a whole other kind of horror in this book, and that horror is the truth of what happened to The Donner Party. It isn’t just the fact that the wilderness is dangerous, especially in high stakes situations, but the actual fate of this wagon train is frightening even without the supernatural element. This group took a bad trail based on bad information, hubris, and the entitlement of Manifest Destiny, and therein ended up stranded in the mountain wilderness during winter. Then, when they started to succumb to exposure, cannibalism became the only option for some to survive. That is unsettling without the help of outside forces. I remember being unsettled during that class back in college as I realized that I no longer had the appetite for the food I so gleefully brought with me. And Katsu captures it perfectly, because even though you know what is going to happen, you still dread it.
“The Hunger” is a superb horror novel that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. If you are feeling extra daring, save it for a cold winter night, perhaps when it is snowing outside and you might be able to see strange shadows in the trees…
Rating 9: A tense and detailed historical fiction/horror novel, “The Hunger” brings a creepy twist to the already creepy true story of the Donner Party.
Find “The Hunger” at your library using WorldCat!