The Hunger by Alma Katsu Transworld April 5th 2018
After traveling west for weeks, the party of pioneers comes to a crossroads. It is time for their leader, George Donner, to make a choice. They face two diverging paths which lead to the same destination. One is well-documented – the other untested, but rumoured to be shorter.
Donner’s decision will shape the lives of everyone travelling with him. The searing heat of the desert gives way to biting winds and a bitter cold that freezes the cattle where they stand. Driven to the brink of madness, the ill-fated group struggles to survive and minor disagreements turn into violent confrontations. Then the children begin to disappear. As the survivors turn against each other, a few begin to realise that the threat they face reaches beyond the fury of the natural elements, to something more primal and far more deadly.
Based on the true story of The Donner Party, The Hunger is an eerie, shiver-inducing exploration of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.
When you hear that Ridley Scott has optioned The Hunger for a film, you know you must be in a for a damn good book. The fact it is based on a true story made the novel even more interesting and appealing. I had not previously heard of the Donner Party and did a quick Google search to find out what it was all about. To read that eighty seven pioneers set off for California and only forty eight survived and of the horrors that they endured I did wonder if the true story was just that, a story so unbelievable some of the information.
What intrigued me most of all was how Alma Katsu would use the story of the Donner Party, how she portrayed the characters and the imagery she might conjure up.
The characters were wide and varied, from various social backgrounds, and all seemed to have some secret or past they wished to remain hidden. George Donner had money and to start with power and emerged as the natural leader, fellow pioneer James Reed his self appointed deputy. Donner’s wife Tamsen is treated with suspicion such is her love of herbal potions, that many blame her witchery for the disasters that dog them on their journey.
There is Stanton, the only single man amongst the party, running away from a past hoping to make a new life in California, Elitha Donner who hears voices , Mary Greaves who forms an attachment to Stanton, Reiner Keseberg, nasty and out for himself. And those are just a few that make up the wagon train.
Such a huge cast of characters could be unwieldy, in danger of becoming bogged down and complicated yet Katsu handles them all with great skill, weaving their back stories into the present. Their motives for the journey are laid bare, their weaknesses exploited adding drama and palpable tension throughout.
The most prominent characters in the novel were the landscape and the weather. When Donner makes the final decision on their route choice you just knew it would be the wrong one. The landscape is challenging, from thick forest to the wide expanse of the Sierra Nevada. The weather sees the pioneers experience suffocating heat and the brutality of a bitter Sierra Nevada winter. This is where Katsu excelled, as the hardships of the weather and terrain took their toll on the pioneers, her narrative ramped up a notch. She brilliantly described the infighting, the suspicion, and ultimately the will of the pioneers to protect their own and survive. The horrors that ensued are not glossed over, and I did find some of the descriptions hard to read, yet it is an essential part of the story. The only thing that I was uncertain of and felt was not needed was the supernatural element of the story. I shall not go into detail but let you make up your own mind!
There is is a surprise towards the end of the novel that I found terrifying and filled me with horror, the narrative conjuring images that are definitely not nice.
The Hunger is a nightmare none of us would ever wish to experience. It is chilling and all the more horrifying when you know much of what Katsu writes is based on true facts.
It is well written and utterly compelling, and a novel I will not forget in a hurry.
My thanks to Poppy Stimpson and Transworld for a proof to read and review.
About the author
A graduate of the Masters writing program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Alma Katsu worked briefly in advertising and PR before moving into the intelligence world, working as a senior analyst for several US agencies, including the CIA and the American equivalent of GCHQ. She was also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Alma Katsu lives in the Washington, DC area.
To find out more, visit her website almakatsubooks.com