Page Turners

The Hunger and Historical Fiction




The human brain is capable of some serious pattern recognition. It’s an evolutionary benefit that has helped us survive, but it also makes us think that simple synchronicity is something more than a fluke. But it’s still pretty cool. And I bring this up because I’ve had a very strange couple of weeks lately. After Dead Beat ended up taking place in Halloween and I decided to just lean into it and read nothing but Halloween-adjacent books for all of September and October, I decided the next book I’d pick up would be Alma Katsu’s the Hunger. It’s a book I actually didn’t know much about, other than the fact that people were really liking it, it was horror, and it had something to do with settlers. But, much to my surprise, when I actually started reading the book I found that it was also historical fiction. Because the book isn’t just about some random group of settlers travelling down the Oregon Trail. It’s about the Donner Party! That fact caught me a little off guard, but I was pretty quickly drawn into the world that Alma Katsu created, causing me to become interested in the actual historical facts of the disastrous trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains. And, as luck would have it, while I was first getting into the novel I found out that the next series being tackled by the excellent Last Podcast on the Left was going to revolve around the true story of the Donner Party! So, I’ve had a very cannibal-heavy couple of weeks. Both historical fact and historical fiction. And let me tell you, it’s terrifying.

The Hunger more or less tells the story of the eighty-seven people who traveled from Independence, Missouri to California. The novel takes the names of the real people who were involved in the tragedy, and tries to fill out their lives, showing us what it would be like to be involved in such a horrific experience. The book primarily revolves around a man named Charles Stanton, a bachelor who is travelling to California in the hopes of leaving behind some trumped up scandal that had been ruining his life wherever he went. He’s attempting to leave his past behind and start a new and prosperous life in California, but finds that the wagon-train is much more tasking than anyone had ever assumed. And the reason for that primarily stems from the fact that the two leaders of the party, George Donner and James Reed, have decided that they wouldn’t be taking the normal Oregon Trail route, instead deciding to try the untested Hasting’s Cutoff route. Normally at this time people who wanted to get to the California Territory would have to go to Oregon, and then South. But, this path would have then cut through the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, something that Lansford Hastings devised simply by looking at maps, not taking into account how hellacious that trip would actually be.

But, the book isn’t just a straightforward retelling of the Donner Party trip. So, added into the regular, mundane horror of life as a settler, the novel throws in some mysterious murders. Almost as soon as the Party was alone in the prairie they start realizing that there’s something following them. Children are stolen from their tents at night and found mutilated further along the trail. The mysterious killings make no sense, but no one is able to focus on it too much, because they have the impossible task to getting to California alive to deal with as well. We start learning that there’s myths among the native people of this area of a great all-consuming hunger that can infect people, and it’s slowly suggested that there’s been a rash of cannibalism in these mountains, often linked to people who suddenly go mad, as if by a curse. But, they aren’t able to focus on this horror until they get to a point where they’re absolutely trapped. Because after they pass through the Great Salt Lake Desert the Party becomes trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains thanks to a spectacularly heavy winter, keeping him trapped and at mercy for the strange, feral human beings who seem to have been following them for months. They remain trapped in the mountains for months, which is when the cannibalism begins. The settlers begin dwindling, both at the hands of the feral humans in the woods and their own Party members as they remain absolutely alone until the snow abates long enough for a rescue party to save them. But, by that point only 48 Party members have survived, and they’ve had to come face to face with true horror.

This is a novel that is really hard to explain. Because when you describe the plot of the book, it feels a bit like a history lesson. Yeah, there’s a group of strange cannibals living in the woods that may or may not be linked to a strange curse that a family of German immigrants brought to America, awakening a long-dormant Native American curse, but that honestly doesn’t come up that much. For the most part it’s a novel that just focuses on the average people of the Donner Party as they slowly starve themselves to the point where they have no choice but to all die or eat human flesh. We see people try to find any source of happiness in their dreadful lives, trapped in the monotonous and deadly world of westward expansion. Alma Katsu is able to draw the reader into a false sense of security throughout the novel, getting us familiar with the day to day lives of these settlers, and using the knowledge of how things are going to end to ratchet the tension up slowly but surely. I of course knew of the Donner Party. I think everyone who grew up in the West does. But I’d never known this much about it, so the actual examination of these people was a mystery. Giving us a perfectly believable story of real, historical horror, with some supernatural elements tossed in.

Which, kind of ended up being the weirdest part of the novel. After listening to the two episodes on the Donner Party that Last Podcast on the Left did I realized how accurate this novel was. The broad strokes are all there, every character is based on a real person, and we get a real look at the horror that these people went through. Which was a little strange. I know that this issue is present in most forms of historical fiction, but it was pretty odd at times to read about these real actual people who lived, and see them put in positions that they almost certainly weren’t in. It makes for a good novel, but at times it almost felt a little slanderous, adding aspects to these people’s lives that are more than likely false. These are real people, and it’s strange to see their disastrous trek put in the context of the supernatural. And, at times, the whole mysticism felt a little distracting. This is a real-life horror story, one of the most upsetting and terrifying stories in American history, and a weird German curse isn’t really that necessary. The story is terrifying enough on its own, and the supernatural elements just end up being a little too much. It’s still a really fascinating novel, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit, but at times I was hoping that the curse would just be dropped and we could just accept this story for what it really is. Real horror.


The Hunger was written by Alma Katsu and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.

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