A Pioneer Adventure, Down the Trail to Oregon: A Review of Alma Katsu's The Hunger
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Last week I said I was working on The Hunger by Alma Katsu, and boy, did this book deliver.
In short, this story begs the question: what would have happened in the Donner Party if they met wendigos?
I imagine many do not know what a wendigo is. Never fear, I, a white woman, am here to tell you what this creature is. Originating from the Algonquian tribes, the wendigo is a monstrous creature or spirit that features humanoid characteristics, and tends to influence others towards murder and cannibalism; along with other such cultural taboos. See, it’s honestly not that far fetched to associate wendigos with the Donner Party.
In popular culture however, the myth of the wendigo has been changed and molded to fit into stories as needed. In some stories, I have seen characters who are forced to turn to cannibalism and thus become wendigos themselves. The other change I feel that I’ve seen is one that follows zombie/werewolf rules; like if a character was to be bitten by a wendigo then he, she, or they would begin transforming into a wendigo.
The Hunger follows neither of those modern ideas. Instead, Katsu takes much more reference from the original myth with the wendigos being more of a semi-unseen spirit that is influencing and bringing harm to those in the Donner Party.
Now that we’ve discussed wendigos and what they are, let’s get into our characters; and, oh boy, there are a lot! To make this easier, I’ll only talk about a small handful. I should also mention that the majority of the characters in the novel are based real people who were members of the Donner Party, with the exception of a few, but these people have been molded to fit the events Katsu created.
A trigger warning is also in place for this novel. The Hunger includes mentions of sexual and physical assault against both adults and minors.
The Hunger begins with Charles Stanton, our romantic hero of the novel. Then there is George Donner, the leader of the Donner Party, and his wife Tamsen, our anti-hero who others view as a witch due to her interest in herbalism. The other women characters the novel focuses on are a one Miss. Mary Graves, who is there to be our modern voice of reason and the love interest for Stanton. The final female character is Elitha Donner, the 14-year-old daughter of George Donner who, in this historical fiction, can hear the dead. Finally, there is the biggest ass-hat character of the novel, the worst man to grace these pages with his presence, an attempted child rapist, a possible psychopath, and confirmed cannibal: Mr. Lewis Keseberg; more on him later.
There are also like 20+ more characters, but they all blend together. I’m amazed I was able to keep the six above straight half the time.
Seeing as there was nearly one hundred people in the Donner Party, I understand why there are so many characters that Katsu makes note of. That being said, I need more to differentiate between those she chooses to focus on; especially all the white men. The women were easier to keep straight, they all had clear motivations and characteristics that made them memorable. The men just fought the majority of the time, and specifically about who should lead the wagon party, what trail to take, the importance of rationing, and so on and so forth.
I do have to say that most of the fighting seemed to happen due to the class divide, and I must say, the commentary on this issue is written very well.
The Donners, for instance, had the means to hire men before leaving down the trail to watch the many heads of cattle they brought with them, protect the family’s wagons from thieves, and handle the fixing of tools and tack when it would break down among other jobs that occurred on the trail. This family also a had plentiful rations and money for the most part. They didn’t want for anything on the trail, until the end obviously, and were able to travel in relative comfort while other, poorer families had to do all the work themselves and ration food as much as possible.
In real life and in this book, George Donner desperately wanted to be the head of the wagon party. His motivation for this seemed to be because he was the richest man in the wagon party; thus he should get to call all the shots. Others, specifically the poorer families and single men traveling, did not agree with Donner’s ideas and leadership. The idea was to get across country as quickly, and safely, as possible. Donner, in The Hunger at least, tended to move the wagon party slower and doesn’t remind or warn people to ration their food supply. It’s plain to see why others would eventually turn on Donner and fight for a new leader.
Now, this notable class divide, and the fighting that ensued, is *chef kiss* absolutely remarkable. Katsu is a marvelous writer, there are so many beautiful metaphors and similes I want to point out, but her writing downfall are these male characters.
On top of them being totally forgettable, Katsu changes the POV every chapter. There isn’t any order in which the characters narrate, leaving me in confusion for the first paragraph each and every chapter. It did get easier as the book progressed because I was able to differentiate between characters, but nonetheless, it was confusing as hell. There should have been some note in the chapter heads of which character was narrating.
The other part of the writing that really displeased me were the time skips. There was a large span of time Katsu had to cover, and if you look at the timeline of the actual Donner Party, there are large spans of time when everything was going smoothly; truly there were few notable events in the Donner Party timeline. I can’t fault Katsu for using time jumps, and she does break parts up by month, but other than those few marker pages there is nothing to tell what day it is during the course of the book. In my mind, everything in each part was happening in like two days if a character didn’t say something had happened a week ago. I needed more mentions of time because I was hella confused.
Another area of the writing I must highlight is the desperation that presents itself in the end of the book. All the characters know how fucked they are by the time fall comes. They’re in the mountains, they have hundreds of miles to cover, and they have no rations or true shelter. Each chapter is plagued with desperate wishes of food and cruelty between one another.
The pioneers are turning against one another. Lines have been drawn, sides are taken, and people suck. Yes, I’m mainly referring to Lewis Keseberg, I said we were going to talk more about him because he sucks, so here we are.
This ass-hat, from the start he’s causing drama, he wants to lead the wagon party by fighting those in charge, and he gets worse as the story continues. It’s because of him I include a trigger warning for this book. Keseberg is the one who physically abuses his wife, and sexual abuses the young women and children at the height of the novel. I have no sympathy for this character, and I hope he rots in hell after everything he has done.
Not only does his character suck, but he also makes me bring up my final fault of this book. As I said, I love the desperation all the characters present at the height of the novel, no one is safe from the elements, others in the party, and/or the supernatural presence haunting the area. So many secrets are being revealed at this point in time, but those secrets seem to be thrown in just to add to the discomfort of the reader.
I won’t spoil who these secrets belong to, but I want to mention what they are. Throughout the novel, there are hints to the secrets our characters hold. As any competent book will do, there is foreshadowing and hinting towards the truth behind these secrets, but when they finally come to light it is as if they’re thrown in there just because. Two of the secrets involve incest, and another involves criminals on the run/cannibalism being hereditary.
There is just a lot coming at you in a short span of time.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it if you enjoy learning about weirder parts of history. Katsu has a similar historical fiction type novel focusing on the Titanic, and you can bet that I’m now going to read that as soon as book stores open up again.