The story of the Donner Party is sketchily retold in Burton's new novel, which reimagines the tragedy through the eyes of Tamsen Donner, 45-year-old wife of George Donner, the leader of the party that, in 1846, set out from Springfield, Ill., for California and wound up snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the winter. In journal entries and letters to her sister, Tamsen dutifully recounts her early life in Massachusetts, Donner's courtship, their decision to move to California, and the blunders that ate up time and trapped their party for four months in the mountain snow, where Tamsen proves to be a pillar of strength for her injured husband, their family, and the other families depending upon them for survival. The narrative builds to what readers will be most curious about: how did the cannibalism come about? The answer is supplied by Tamsen in a matter-of-fact way that is in keeping with the other horrors she describes. In the end, the narrative's feminist trappings feel forced, and the result is a novel that only fitfully fulfils its goal of dramatizing the famous events from a new point of view. (Mar.)
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Burton has researched Tamsen for 38 years, including retracing the Donner's overland route from Illinois to the Donner Pass. She documented the journey in her 2009 memoir-history-travelogue, "Searching for Tamsen Donner."
Now, with "Impatient With Desire," Burton has taken her obsession all the way: She inhabits Tamsen Donner, crawling inside her skin, then into the dark, fetid hole in the woods with her starving family, penning journal entries, recording the deaths of fellow pilgrims. Using Tamsen's 17 surviving letters, Burton gives us Donner's girlhood, the perilous overland trek and, most important, the credible voice of a heroine lost to time.
What emerges is a wholly recognizable woman; imperfect, impetuous, brave, practical and utterly terrified... Burton deftly allows the desperation to escalate so that, by the time Tamsen is digging up the dead, it seems like the perfectly right thing to do. The horror of the act is contextualized, and we marvel not at its savagery but at the heroism of cutting out and cooking up a man's heart to keep children alive. "My whole life," Tamsen writes near the end, "my heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. . . . I cannot bear it if no one knows what has gone on here. What I have seen. What was waiting for me here. . . ."
Burton's writing tears out the reader's heart as it brings closure to her quest to understand a woman lost to time. "Impatient With Desire" finally rescues Tamsen Donner from ignominy, bringing her back to us a robust and very alive woman. --Los Angeles Times
[In Impatient with Desire and Searching for Tamsen Donner,] Burton leads her readers to heights of awe, admiration, and inspiration through her fictional but well-researched account of Tamsen Donner's fateful journey west and her memoir of taking her own daughters on the same journey, trying to find both the woman who was Tamsen Donner and herself.
Gabrielle Burton's Impatient with Desire is a beautifully written fictional account of the Donner party's epic journey of 1846. It is a journey whose tragic and gruesome finale is familiar to most Americans. Burton uses years of solid research and a disciplined imagination to fill in the less sensational but still moving details of the trip that began in Illinois and ended in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner, brave, independent, kind, and determined to make her way west both for the adventure of it all and for the advantages she was sure awaited her family in California. The party of George Donner, Tamsen, their five children, and eighty other pioneers traveled by wagon going west across miles of meadows, mountains, and deserts. Tamsen's journal entries and letters to her sister back east, imagined by Burton, describe the journey west in all its hardships and its pleasures. Although only two of Tamsen's letters while on the trail still exist and her journal was never recovered, Burton uses the facts she does have to evoke the heart and soul of Tamsen, and to record her motivations in beginning the trip, her delights in the journey, and her heroism in the snows of Truckee Meadows. Tamsen kept her five children alive and sane through a regimen of hygiene, chores, and meals (only at the very end was human meat prepared and then it was only for the youngest of the group). In addition to taking care of their bodily needs as best she could, Tamsen inspired them -- and now, us -- with her own unquenchable spirit, her awe and gratitude for the beauty she saw while crossing the country, and her firm sense of destiny as one who would settle the United States for future generations.
Searching for Tamsen Donner is Burton's riveting memoir of the trip she took one summer tracking both the trail of the Donner party across the United States and the personal story of Tamsen Donner. Burton's journey took her to Newburyport Massachusetts, where Tamsen was born, south to North Carolina where she taught school, married, had two children, and then lost all three; and north to Springfield, Illinois where Tamsen met George Donner and from where they began their westward migration. Burton followed the old Oregon-California Trail up to the Truckee Meadows, where she slept out beneath the tree then believed to be the tree against which the Donners built their winter shelter over a century earlier. Burton undertook the massive cross country trip with her husband and five children and her details of life on the road interspersed with facts and questions about the Donner party and memories from Burton's own life as a writer, mother, and feminist combine to make this an inspiring memoir of fully-engaged motherhood, a riveting history of self-discovery, and a further homage to the spirit and the legacy of Tamsen Donner. --Huffington Post (Nina Sankovitch)
Cannibalism usually comes to mind when the Donner Party is mentioned.
The story of these pioneers is one of the best known -- and most speculated upon -- in the history of 19th century westward migration.
In "Impatient With Desire," author Gabrielle Burton focuses on the way these pioneers dealt with adversity, asking why some maintained hope while others did not. And Burton does it from the direct viewpoint of Tamsen Donner, the wife of George Donner, the party's leader.
In the summer of 1846, Tamsen, George and their five daughters left Springfield, Ill., and headed West for California. With them were the families of George's brother, Jacob, and James Reed. Along the way they joined with several overland parties forming a new wagon train that, at its height, numbered 87 emigrants with 23 wagons...
Here, Burton has drawn on known instances to build upon the unknown. She takes words from the mouths of others in the party because she believes it's likely the Donners said and did the same things.
"Impatient With Desire" is beautiful and heartbreaking, but it's also a little bit like watching a train wreck. Knowing the history behind the story, one cannot but anticipate when and where cannibalism will enter the narrative.
To Burton's credit, the subject is carefully approached, with little detail except that of the trepidation and emotional pain faced by the characters. Tamsen's words, "We are already in hell" convey the situation far better than any description could.
Poetically written, "Impatient With Desire" is engrossing and emotional. One feels as if she is there, sitting with Tamsen and her family as they suffer through the hardships and brief pleasures associated with this ill-fated group. --SLC Deseret News
Long after the novel is laid down, you will hear Tamsen's voice in your head and heart. --LibraryThing
I had never heard of the Donner Party nor knew anything about another way to travel west besides the Oregon Trail. So, when I sat down with this book, I had no expectations besides being entertained. I didn't expect Tamsen Donner to catch my heart and hold it through her journal entries and letters to her sister. My heart went out to the families and men that traveled in the party, and every time one died, I could feel the heartbreak and mounting concern that each one brought, as if I, too, was traveling with them. Tamsen was a strong and courageous voice that had such spirit and dignity, even in times when she felt her hope dwindling. Gabrielle Burton gave Tamsen such a powerful voice. One, that I'm sure, captured the essence of who Tamsen was. I was impressed by how much research went into this novel, and how Gabrielle spent time on the same trail to get the feel of what it must have been like for the Donners. This was an amazing book and a fantastic piece of historical fiction that should be read by everyone. Impatient with Desire is a masterful piece of work that captures the pioneer spirit and brings to light the sacrifice, commitment and disappointments each adventurer had to endure. I look forward to reading more by this author! --Good Reads
A choice for our book discussion group, this book sparked a really good discussion. The story of Tamsen Donner is more logical to me than it had been. Read morePublished 2 months ago by V. Pierce
and i cannot get it out of my head! unbelievably realistic tale that has captured my imagination... tanner donner is a heroine for the ages...Published on March 31, 2013 by J. Barth
This fictional diary by Tamsen Donner gives a fascinating insider viewpoint to the harrowing Donner Party expedition. Read morePublished on July 17, 2012 by M. Grigsby
Tamsen Donner, along with the rest of the Donner Party, set out for open land and new opportunity. The same trip thousands of others made over the Oregon Trail, with one exception... Read morePublished on March 22, 2012 by Star @ The Bibliophilic Book Blog
I was very intrigued by the notion of a diary telling the story of the Donner party. And the author did give a good job helping you feel the enthusiasm with which the party... Read morePublished on March 11, 2012 by Book lover
Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle is a novel that is based on a lost journal of Tamsen Donner. This is a historical novel that takes place during the spring of 1846 when families... Read morePublished on April 11, 2011 by Sheri Newton