Book Review - The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Updated: May 9, 2018
A well thought out and delightfully dark reimagining of the Donner party trek and tragedy.
It’s books like these that make me mad, mad, mad. Not mad because the book was bad or poorly written (it wasn’t), not mad because of the liberties taken by the author (they enhance the story, so are acceptable), and not mad because a favorite character died (this is about the Donner party, people die). No, I’m mad because I didn’t think of this concept first. I mean, come on, a group of settlers/pioneers who get trapped in the mountains and resort to cannibalism? That’s the perfect zombie setup if I’ve ever heard one.
I’m trying to put more horror in my book diet, and while there are plenty of choices out there, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to titles that aren't quite mainstream, or with unique concepts. Sure, I like a haunted house story as much as the next guy (I run this site after all), but after a while you need something different to cleanse the palate. And The Hunger by Alma Katsu is the perfect palate cleanser. It takes the “historical fiction” concepts of authors like Nathaniel Philbrick, Dan Simmons & Erik Larson, and adds a nice supernatural spin that makes already tragic story that much more ominous. But let it be known that this is not a fast-paced monster book where there are surprises and cliffhangers around every corner. The Hunger is a more methodical thriller, more patient in its approach, and doesn't just hand the reader everything on a silver platter.
The world was fragile. One day, growth; the next day, kindling.
As a child growing up in California, I was actually already pretty familiar with the history of the Donner-Reed party. I’ve driven up to the very locations where the crossing was most severe in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, I’ve been camping in Truckee and seen Donner Lake, and have hiked some of the wilderness where the last part of this story takes place. I am also living in Utah at present, so I know very well the Wasatch mountain range and the salt flats. It’s ironic, as it seems like it takes forever to drive through these locations (generally many hours), and yet that’s in a vehicle travelling at 70 mph on paved roads. I can only imagine how difficult of a crossing it must have been with wagons (dubbed prairie schooners by how the canvas tops resembled the sails of a ship) and packhorses, travelling at maybe 2 miles per hour, having to hope for good grazing areas and being ever conscious of water and food stores. The pioneers of old were far braver and endured more hardships than we as a comfortable society will ever know. Hell, we even have a restaurant here in Ogden called The Prairie Schooner where you sit in small simulated wagons and eat hearty meals while surrounded by mockups of high desert flora & fauna. It’s weird how things have changed for us as a people and a society.
Like all my reviews, I will attempt to avoid spoilers whenever possible. To be honest, anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the Donner and Reed families and they tragic trek west will know that most folks didn’t make it, so spoilers here would be kinda non-existent. Regardless, I will do my best to avoid giving away any significant plot points.
Told partly in third person, and partly in epistolary format, The Hunger truly is a unique book. And while some people may not like the epistolary format, I find that in the context of historical fiction it works quite well. It helps give a book that old-timey feel, and is perfectly at home here. We also get a few flashbacks for some of the characters, which is good, as we generally don’t know much about them when we are first introduced to them. In fact, they’ll make some interesting choices or have strange reactions to a situation, and we only learn later on, through their flashback, why they reacted as they did.
There was something dark about her soul, something remote and flickering, like a flame in wind…”
So while there were a few liberties taken and a few fictional characters added to round out the tale, the folks who populate The Hunger were by-and-large real people. And we get a pretty good selection of them as point of view characters. Charles Stanton, Edwin Bryant, James Reed, Tamsen Donner, Elitha Donner, Mary Graves, and a few others round out the POV roster. I hesitate to say that there’s any one “main” character, as there really isn’t. This trek was a multi-family affair, and the story being told here, fictionalized though it may be, belongs to everyone. So it works that no one person has the lion’s share of the tale. That said, the points of view that we do follow are nice and varied.
Charles Stanton is a single man seeking to leave a troubled past behind. In a group mostly populated by families, large and multi-generational, a single man is a sort of oddity. But though Stanton might be a slight outcast, he is a capable man with a good head on his shoulders. ”I don’t believe in monsers,” Stanton said. “Only men who behave like them.”
Edwin Bryant is more of a scholar than a frontiersman, and is also travelling alone. But while Stanton is a loner by nature, an outsider by his own design, Edwin Bryant is more accepted within the wagon train, especially due to his limited medical knowledge.
Tamsen Donner is the much younger wife to George Donner, the “leader” of the pioneers heading west. Beautiful and aloof, many of the pioneers (especially the women) think she is some kind of witch, hoping to ensnare the attention and affection of their men. From a distance she seemed even more beautiful to him now, but also frightening, like a newly sharpened knife. But while Tamsen may appear to be one thing on the outside, she is quite a different person once the layers are peeled back.
James Reed is a family man and one of the more sensible men within the group, but his timid nature means that nobody really listens to him. He has a past he is also running from, a secret that he has kept hidden from everyone, including his family.
Elitha Donner is George’s daughter from his previous marriage, and is incredibly sensitive to potentially supernatural events that are transpiring in the book. She's a sweet girl with a caring nature, but everything happening around her is threatening to consume her sanity.
And Mary Graves is somewhat of a tomboy and is rather outspoken, unafraid to speak her mind and question the decisions of her elders. I always wanted more of her chapters, as she was refreshingly straightforward and generally cut to the chase of any conversation.
There’s also a few chapters from a few other perspectives, which are also just as entertaining and effective. And though we may think we know all we need to know about a person, there will be a chapter where they up and surprise you. Though they lived in simple times, and maybe lived simple lives, these were no simple people…and years on the trail leaves plenty of time for introspection.
”Maybe it takes one demon to keep the others away.” He paused. His eyes glistened with tears now. “Lucifer had been an angel first. I always remembered that.”
I also daresay that the harsh and desolate landscape is nearly just as much of a character as the actual people in the book. Harsh, unforgiving, and endless, the path that our settlers/pioneers travel is expertly rendered by Alma Katsu. This book is heavy on atmosphere, with evocative descriptions of the inhospitable landscape and the sheer isolation of the party. This is a somber tale to be sure, though there are few moments of levity thrown in, generally a “head of the nail” observation made by one of the women.
Put any two young men together and before long they’d be questioning each other’s smarts, whether they’d ever been with a girl, and the size of their peckers.
It must also be said that The Hunger is just plain well written. The vernacular fits the time period, and there are some genuinely beautiful passages. As our intrepid party gets further and further into the unknown reaches of western America, their desperation manifests in interesting ways. The river looked to her like a bed made with clean linens. It looked like home. These are people who have left everything behind them, and on top of an arduous trek across an unforgiving landscape, they have to deal with the growing supernatural threat that is stalking them. Not everyone emerges with their sanity unscathed. Hope, Tamsen realized, could be a very dangerous thing, especially when dealt to desperate hands.
And speaking of that supernatural threat…Alma Katsu does a great job of taking the “zombie” concept and turning it on its head, making it fit the theme of the story very well. I read somewhere that this is “The Walking Dead” meets a pioneer trek, and I can honestly say that isn’t the case, and slightly misrepresents the book. I suppose the publishers want to put the name of a well-known cultural hit out there to drum up interest in the book, but it’s almost a disservice to The Hunger. For the Walking Dead zombies and the creatures here in this book are nothing alike, and I actually find Alma Katsu’s creations much more dangerous and interesting. If you like your zombies in the traditional Romero vein, you may have a problem with the creatures here. But if you go in with an open mind, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I don’t want to say much more about it, as the joy is in the discovery, so we’ll just say that I’ll never look at spare ribs quite the same way again.
I was very happy with how the issues of gender and heritage were handled in The Hunger. Neither women nor American Indians were treated particularly well in these times, and Alma Katsu does a good job at showing this, without being insensitive or timid. These were the discriminations of the times, and while they don’t need to be glorified or over-done, they shouldn’t be glossed over either.
It was hard to be a young widow in a small town – men assumed things about women who had known a man’s attentions and suddenly had to do without.
I did have a few issues with the book, where some part of the tale maybe didn’t add up. Charles Stanton seems to know a lot of what happened to Edwin Bryant when goes off on his own, but then later we are told that the letter that Bryant wrote to Stanton was never delivered to him. So if that’s the case…how did Stanton know who Bryant was travelling with and such? It was mostly just little nit-picky things like that.
I also wanted more horror from The Hunger. While it is deep and dark and unsettling, and doesn’t skimp on the blood or violence, it’s not a particularly scary book. Or maybe I’m just inured to the horror, as it takes a LOT to really get to me. But I daresay that even casual readers will find the book more uncomfortable than truly frightening. Fortunately, Alma Katsu pulls no punches when describing victims the infected. And yes, even some of the aspects of cannibalism are described, though not to excessive levels. That said, some of the more squeamish readers may not want to read about when bone marrow and starving people collide...
But let’s not have it said that the book isn’t entertaining. It is that, and much more. While I’ve never read anything else by Alma Katsu, I plan to rectify that in the coming months. She’s a damn good author, with a gift for evocative prose and compelling characterization. I was totally hooked by this tale, and absolutely would love to read more of her works. Now...who's up for a rare steak or juicy ribs?
4 out of 5 hungry and desperate stars!