What it’s about: All American schoolchildren probably learn about the Donner Party. While not an incredibly significant event in American westward expansion, the story of the families emigrating to California who become trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains and struggle to survive — some even resorting to cannibalism — captures our imaginations as much today as it did when it happened. In Impatient with Desire — an unfortunate title that evokes a lurid romance more than a serious work of historical fiction — Burton attempts to give a voice to one of the people who perished in that ordeal: Tamsen Donner, wife of the expedition’s leader, George Donner.
The story is told in the form of Tamsen’s imaginary diary entries and letters to her sister. This choice is a good one because it allows Tamsen to recollect important events from her past, shedding light on her character and breaking up what would otherwise be a bleak narrative of four months of misery and starvation. As Tamsen deteriorates, her journal entries become more disjointed and rambling, helping the reader experience her state of mind. The only problem with this narrative structure is that it is sometimes repetitive, and it can be difficult to keep track of when certain key events happened.
Why I liked it: Tamsen is a fascinating character, a woman ahead of her time. She is portrayed as an adventurer at heart who found a soulmate in her second husband George. She had a strong desire to experience the world and often chafed against the societal restrictions placed on women in her time. She also regarded her family’s move westward as her chance to participate in history and help shape what her young country would become. She wholeheartedly believed in Manifest Destiny. This goes a long way toward explaining why she would bring her five young children along on such a treacherous journey.
I was most interested in whether she felt she had made a mistake in heading West and putting her children through an unimaginable ordeal. While Tamsen does ruminate on some of the party’s mistakes — taking the disastrous shortcut that led to their being trapped, for one — she never seems to regret her decisions. Up to the end, she manages to take pride in their adventure and her conviction that they are leading others west in a great mission to form a new land, despite their expedition’s failures. I’m not certain I would have felt the same way, or that I would have chosen to stay behind with my husband instead of seeing my children to safety, but a great part of our fascination with this story is wondering why these people made the choices they did and imagining what we would have done in their place. Burton does a good job of bringing Tamsen Donner to life in this novel, and helping us understand her a bit better.
You might like it if: You enjoy historical fiction from a woman’s point of view. Similar authors would be Kathleen Kent or Geraldine Brooks.