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Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner Paperback – March 15, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Voice; Reprint edition (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401341667
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401341664
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,238,265 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've spent the last few months reading books on the Donner Party, going back to a novel out of print for fifty years, so I can say with some confidence, If you read one book on the event, this is the one to read. For a strictly chronological account that puts you on the ground at Donner Lake, I still recommend The Mothers, by Vardis Fisher. But Gabrielle Burton has done something special with a hard topic. Impatient with Desire is the lost journal of Tamsen Donner. To understand, let's back up a bit.

From this distance, one of the tragedies of the Donner story is the loss of Tamsen Donner's journal. Tamsen was the wife of the leader of the group, George Donner. She was an educated woman, a teacher and writer, and she kept a journal from the time they left Independence, Missouri, in April 1845 until some weeks before her death in the Sierras almost a year later. The journal, like most of the property of the doomed emigrants, was lost in the spring thaw after all were dead or saved. It is truly lost, not misplaced, mulched into the forest at Donner Lake. But what an opportunity it was, and it is an imagined classic of the Oregon/California Trail.

Burton uses a deeply informed imagination to "retrieve" it, and her book beautifully recreates what might have been. She imagines the book as not just a diary but a memoir, which gives her the opportunity to tell the entire story in a series of flashbacks woven into an account of the four months the families spent trapped and starving an impassable hundred miles from Sacramento. Burton imagines that Tamsen began the journal at the lake, so the warp of the story is the daily trials of staying alive and keeping children alive.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read this is one day and then thought about it during the night. Mrs. Donner is so well drawn and the back and forth of the plot, shifting between the current horrible situation and their past lives, all keep you reading until the very end and wishing there were more. Good insight into the minds of the pioneers who adventured West..
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Format: Hardcover
A few weeks ago, the author of Impatient with Desire contacted me about reading, reviewing, and creating discussion questions for her new novel. Now I'll admit, when I read that the topic was the Donner Party, I hesitated -- a lot. I know very little about this unfortunate tragedy -- and really had no desire to learn more. However, the author explained the novel was written as a Tamsen Donner's journal and that it is a quick read. So, I decided, "why not?"

While Impatient with Desire does address the events that led to cannibalism and other tragic acts, the heart and spirit of this novel is truly a romance. Through Tamsen's letters and fictional journal entries, we witness a marriage that is beautiful and a pleasure to witness. Tamsen's sacrifices for her children, and especially for her husband, are awe-inspiring and powerful. Gentle moments from their courtship were especially lovely, as evidenced in the following passage:

While watching her soon-to-be-husband painstakingly build a stone wall... "He was in no hurry nor rush -- I would come to understand that he cared more about the building than the completion -- and my heart said, I will cast my lot with this calm, deliberative man who cares about the fit and rightness of things."

On a another level, Desire is an adventure story -- reminding this reader of how courageous and, quite honestly, foolhardy those early settlers were. I did not realize that there were forty-three children -- many under the age of ten -- in the Donner's excursion. This was painful to read about since children have no voice. But I also appreciate that this complex country of ours owes adventurers a debt of gratitude.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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. Sometimes a work of historical fiction allows me to see into an event "from the inside" in my imagination and this gives me the chance to "be there" and put myself in the place of the people involved. This book succeeds very well.
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Format: Hardcover
***Originally posted at [...] ****

Impatient with Desire is the story of Tamsen Donner, now-legendary
westward pioneer. Tamsen was forty-five when she set out on the
California-Oregon Trail with her husband and five children in the
spring of 1846. Stranded by early snows, Tamsen and the other Donner
Party pioneers spent a harrowing four months in the Sierra Nevadas
without supplies. Tamsen sent her daughters out with relief parties
and stayed behind with her wounded husband; she died sometime in April
1847, leaving only her letters and a journal that was never recovered.
Impatient with Desire is a recreation of that lost journal.

Burton's meticulously researched account mingles her own prose with
phrases from Tamsen's extant letters, with engaging results. From her
shelter in the Sierra Nevadas, Tamsen remembers her girlhood in
Newburyport, her courtship and marriage with her second husband, the
bustle of their preparations to move west, and the hardships of trail
life. Burton captures the voice of this remarkable woman, a
schoolteacher and botanist who traveled alone from Massachusetts to
Illinois and left behind a spirited collection of letters to her
sister Betsey. "In my lifetime people have sometimes wondered at my
conduct, but they have never despised me," Tamsen writes, thinking
back over her travels. "And I shall never be despised."

Tamsen's independence does not go too far, however, in securing her
voice on the trail. One of the most harrowing moments in Impatient
with Desire is a campfire scene where the party's men debate over
whether or not to take the Hastings Cutoff, the ill-advised shortcut
that ultimately left them stranded.
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