Impatient With Desire: A Novel, by Gabrielle Burton – Book Review

Impatient With Desire: A Novel (subtitled The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner) by Gabrielle Burton is a historical fiction novel that recreates the story of the final days of the infamous Donner party (known chiefly for cannibalism after a failed attempt in 1847 to go west to California by wagon train) through the diary entries, lists, and remembrances of Tamsen Donner, the doomed wife of the elected party leader, George Donner.

For the most part, The Donner Party has been a footnote in the history that I grew up learning, tittered at because of the ignominious destiny befalling the would be pioneers. Human cannibalism has a way of stopping deep speculation into its mystique, preventing us from looking beyond the taboo nature of the act to the desperate circumstances that drive the ultimate final step of consuming the corpse of another human being.

Burton chose to present the story in non-linear fashion, begginning as the party is already stranded in the mountains and fearful of their fate. This was jarring for me initially, and it was hard to get past the jumpiness of the narrative which boasted a large cast of characters, similar names (a fair amount of those making the journey were related) lists accounting for the dead and seemingly nonsensical fragments of diaries, remembrances and unfinished letters.

I had to go back a lot to see who was being discussed at any given time. I wondered if it was an effective approach to take based on the confusion it caused, but as the story progresses and the lay of the land is established, it became easier to read. I appreciate really getting a sense of what Tamsen’s life was like, and how the new horrors and difficulties of her journey sparked memories of either better times or the precipitating incident which forced particular choices among the group. Impatient With Desire chiefly examines the way people come together and come apart in extreme situations. Handmaiden to death and despair were festering resentment, misplaced opportunity, selfishness, greed but also love, steadfastness and loyalty. I was touched by the decisions and sacrifices that some made for others, the efforts to sustain civilized ways in brutal surroundings and how mothers aimed to protect and then choose among their children for survival.

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Burton has done painstaking research into Tamsen and the Donner party and even though Tamsen’s diary was never found, Burton does an excellent job of amalgamating the available records and facts into an extremely plausible construction of Tamsen’s last few month with her family. There isn’t one thing that failed and put them all in the situation that they found themselves in, but many things – trusting the wrong information, choosing to travel with the elderly and many small children (slowed them down considerable), and attempting a trail that had yet to be fully vetted were carefully considered amongst the group. What they chose proved to be unlucky. Tamsen’ journal as presented by Burton wove these elements into a compelling novel. Recommended.

Read More Reviews At – Booking Mama | Caribou’s Mom |Books and Movies

Other Interesting Links – Gabrielle Burton on Book Club Exchange | Tamsen Donner Reincarnated?

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens   Book Trailer

Review Copy.

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    1. The way she chose to write it, seems very intentional and I think it has the effect of putting you in Tamsen’s head, flitting back and forth between memories and what got then to where they were. It was worth the initial confusion.

  1. Loved your Tweet – crying on the train. I’ve heard really good things about this book and want to read it when I can find my copy. Yea for books that make you cry on the train! 🙂

    1. Yes! Except for when you are trying to weep quietly in your seat without drawing attention. It’s much more exciting in hindsight.

  2. Wow — crying on the train — that’s some powerful writing. This has been on my list. Must find a way to bump it up.

    1. That, and just the nature of the circumstances. They made some poor choices and had bad luck, and then small children were involved. It was inevitable.

    1. There was so much to be emotional about.

      BTW, I have been trying to comment on your blog, but can’t. It asks for my google account but then does nothing. I’m not sure what’s going on there but thought you should know.

            1. Well I went on the blogger helpboard because I had no idea what to do and they said that I needed to make sure my comments were posting in a separate page as opposed to below the comments which is what they were doing and bam, that worked. Who knew?

  3. I can relate, I’m the crazy woman on the bus, train, plane-crying, laughing. I should carry a sign saying I’m not crazy this is just a really good book.

    This does sound very good, though heart-wrenching. The Donner party is one of the story that fascinated me. The lengths we humans can go do in order to save ours and our children’s lives. I’ll have to add this to my wish list.

  4. Beautiful review. I have always been curious about The Donner Party, and remember reading books about it in the elementary school library many years ago. I think that the book sounds fascinating, and despite the fact that it’s non-linear (which can drive me crazy at times) I still think that it sounds like a book I would love.

  5. I don’t recall having any problems with the narrative. I do remember being impressed with how the author handled such a delicate subject matter.

    I laughed at the Tweet you included. Girl! You were crying on the train?? Seriously? I cried recently at the end of Safe From the Sea, but something really touching has to happen for me to turn on the waterworks.

    1. I think it was the part when she had to be separated from her kids,and deciding which ones could stay or go. THAT after them eating the dog was just too much for me.

      1. Of the 81 trapped, 41 were children 14 and under! That’s what made rescue so difficult, and the story so poignant. Children’s suffering is always particularly heart rending because they didn’t make the decision to be there. It’s hard for us to imagine families going off into the wilderness but of course the parents thought it’d be advantageous for them. & If they hadn’t gone, it’d still be wilderness. Most did make it through. Those who didn’t paid the price for opening up the country.

        1. Gabrielle, thanks for stopping by and adding that perspective. I knew that there were a lot of children, and that was problematic, but that was more than I even thought there were. I think you did such a great job portraying the guilt that they adults felt with respect to the children and the choices that they made. i was touched by their efforts not to blame one another. I have to say that I am in awe of the way that you are able to keep track of the names, the people and their stories. i am glad that we allow for a greater variety of names now, because otherwise things could get really confusing, really fast!

  6. Dear Nicole,
    I’m so glad you persisted reading my novel, Impatient with Desire. I know what you mean about the similarity of names–they all seemed to be named Elizabeth, Elitha, Eliza, Betsy, Betsey, etc. There were so many characters in the Donner Party, 89–90, if you count Sarah Keyes–and so MANY things happened on the trail, a big challenge was to give the reader enough backstory without totally bogging her down. I had to trust that readers would gradually put the pieces together as you did.
    Probably the biggest challenge was mirroring the deteriorating and erratic psychological state of starving people. I chose non linear because it seemed to me that in that situation her mind would shift and slip in and out of time zones even more than we ordinarily do. It was also a way I could keep up hope which was the other big challenge.
    It was my deepest hope to make Tamsen and the story REAL. Your comments and reactions mean a great to me. Thank you for crying on the train. I’ve wept more than once at this story too.