The Hunger, by Alma Katsu

The Hunger, by Alma Katsu book coverGenre:  Alternate History
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Published: 2018
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Reviewer: David L. Felts

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I want to further slice the genre here. I regard alternate history as a sub-genre of speculative fiction. An example might be stories where Germany won World War II. The Hunger, by Alma Katsu, would be more accurately classified as re-imagined history. The outcome of events remains the same (or similar) to the historical record, but the author incorporates a speculative element that now become integral to the outcome. That’s what Katsu does with The Hunger.

Although the words “Donner party” ignited faint sparks in a few of my withered neurons, I didn’t know anything about it. Figuring a more robust (or in my case slight) familiarity of the real events might enhance my enjoyment, I did some research which bore fruit which I will now share.

The Donner party was a group of pioneers led by George Donner and James F. Reed who, in May 1846, set out by wagon train for California. Although the typical journey west took between 4 to 6 months, the Donner Party was attempting a new route called Hastings Cutoff, which crossed Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. The rugged terrain and difficulties encountered resulted in the loss of cattle and wagons, and caused splits within the group.

Delays, mishaps, and mistakes resulted in the party reaching the Sierra Nevada in the beginning of November 1846, where they became trapped by an early snowfall near Truckee (now called Donner) Lake in the high mountains. With food running low some of the group set out on foot to find help in mid-December, but the first relief party didn’t arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train had become trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, only 48 survived to reach California, many of them having resorted to cannibalism for survival.

This is the story Katsu retells, using the historical time line, events, and characters, all seasoned liberally with more than a dash of creeping horror. The result is a tasty stew made even more flavorful by its historical verisimilitude. Using straight narrative focusing on a variety of characters, as well as passages delivered as first person journal entries, Katsu immerses the reader in a story made all the more real–and hence disturbing–by its historical roots.

Charles Stanton is a single man seeking to escape a horrible event in his past. Mary Graves falls in love with him. James Reed is one of the party leaders with a secret he’ll do anything to keep. Georege Donner is a blustery man who pretends at a confidence and competence he doesn’t feel. Tamsen Donner is his beautiful and unfaithful wife. Her 13-year-old stepdaughter Elitha hears the voices of the dead. William is a young Indian guide whose warnings go ignored.

The stress of the journey and unfortunate happenings bring out the best and worst in various party members. In that time period, ignorance and superstition run rampant; much still remained unknown and not understood, subject to superstition and religious dogma. Mysterious events are oft attributed to supernatural influences, god’s will, or some other unknowable genesis. Party members are looking for someone to blame. With the lack of a clear cause, strong personalities emerge and outsiders and the odd become scapegoats.

Drought, infighting, and the death of a little boy have the pioneers on edge and looking for someone to blame. Tamsen Donner must be a witch, otherwise why would all the men be so obsessed with her? And why would she collect herbs and roots for her powders and potions? Only a witch’s curse could explain all the misfortune. And her what about her weird stepdaughter who’s always mumbling to herself? And Stanton? Why is a man his age still single? He must be hiding something. Donner isn’t the leader he claimed, he made bad decisions… the list goes on as the settlers cast their ire on first one person and then another.

As misfortunes mount, tempers flare, personalities clash, and the settlers begin to turn on each other, looking for someone to blame.  As more members of the party disappear, the feeling of foreboding and evil grows, along with the persistent feeling of being hunted, and glimpses of strange, menacing, man-like shapes occasionally glimpsed that seem to be dogging the wagon train.

There’s also the Indian rumor of evil creatures with a bottomless hunger. They call it Na’it. The Hunger. Stay away from Truckee lake, the settlers are told, advice they ignore. Take the old trail, not Hastings Cutoff. More ignored advice.

Animals and people disappear. Frightening whispers are heard in the woods at night. A sick settler recovers, only to become crazed, ranting about being possessed by a hunger that he’s unable to satiate.

The end result is an unsettling and slow-burning tale that combines history and the supernatural that sure to please anyone with interest in either. 

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