Gripping, historical fiction mixed with the supernatural.
In 1846, George Donner and 86 other souls embarked on an ill fated trek across the continent seeking to settle in California. Ill prepared and woefully ignorant of the harsh surroundings and the desolate landscape, the group that came to be known as ‘The Donner Party’ found themselves at the mercy of the elements, their environment and worst of all, themselves.
Poor planning, a series of bad decisions, and early snowstorms caused 60 of the original pioneers to become stranded in the mountains during winter. As hypothermia set in and food ran out, many resorted to that greatest of human taboos: cannibalism. The elements and the terrain combine to frustrate the party, a child is lost and soon after, found dead and mutilated. Power struggles break out amongst the travellers and suspicion and loathing begins to spread. Mistrust and suspicion abound. The party slowly begins to be picked off and it gradually becomes clear that whatever cannibalistic creature may be lurking outside the circle of wagons, the real danger lies within the group itself.
Alma Katsu takes this horrifying grisly footnote in American history and effortlessly and compellingly mixes fact and fiction with a rich vein of horror thrown in. The author’s great skill is in keeping the novel engrossing, despite many having knowledge of the ‘real’ story. This is handled well with the characters being brought to life so effectively.
There is a rich cast of characters and not one person takes centre stage. The story is told from alternating characters' perspectives and it’s particularly impressive that the book doesn’t become confusing with so many characters and viewpoints. The use of back stories and well imagined characters ensures the book doesn’t get bogged down and muddled and this is achieved to great effect. Of the characters, the most interesting are Tamsen Donner, who appears to dabble with the occult and who has an appetite for men (in more ways than one). Stanton, a single man with a past, and Keseberg, a vicious and nasty bully, perhaps the main villain of the piece.
This book is astonishingly atmospheric and provides a strong sense of claustrophobia despite the vastness of the landscape. This serves to magnify the isolation and the increasing desperation of the group. The pages don’t drip with blood, but with dread and foreboding.There is some bloody horror but it is not over the top or relied upon. The real horror comes in the form of psychological horror, mans ability for darkness and the book asks who are the real monsters?
This is an enthralling and chilling read which I greatly enjoyed. The historical setting is portrayed perfectly. The only real criticism I had was that the final third began to run out of steam which is understandable considering what came before it. I did find the ending a little anti-climatic , too. Small gripes about an excellent, sinister, unsettling nightmarish imagining of a dark moment in the history of America.