The Hunger: A Cautionary Tale of Meat and Madness
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
I grew up on the West Coast of the United States, and as such, I learned about the Donner Party in grade school. In hindsight, it seems a bit macabre to include a tale involving cannibalism in your fourth-grade Westward Expansion curriculum. But we studied it multiple times in my K-12 experience, and what started out as a tale of "ew, they ate what?" gradually became a cautionary tale of hubris, the failings of Manifest Destiny and good old-fashioned rotten luck on the great frontier. To be entirely honest, I'd had my fill of wagon trains, Fort Laramie and pioneering spirit by the time I hit high school (and I'd certainly died of dysentery enough times on the Oregon Trail. If you know, you know.) So when I picked up Alma Katsu's The Hunger, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a supernatural reimagining of the story of the Donner Party, but I put it down a couple of times after reading a few lines. That was a mistake on my part, because let me tell you --
This book is amazing.
Or, as I tried to tell my sister, "it has a lot of meat on it," and then I realized too late that the description was not only apt, but probably a little more graphic than I'd originally intended. What I meant, though, is the fact that when I picked up The Hunger, I was expecting a spine-tingling but ultimately shallow horror novel about a supernatural twist on an American tragedy. A return to "ew, they ate what," if you will. That is not what I read. What I read was a thoughtful, sensitively-written, slow-burning thriller that churned my stomach and tugged at my heartstrings as it fearlessly tackled the world of the pioneering spirit -- for better and for worse. Katsu takes a ton of liberties, it's true. But she stays true to the spirit of the tragedy, and to the tagline on the back of the book: "evil is invisible, and it is everywhere."
Let's start with Katsu's cast of characters. We see the book mostly from the third-person perspective of a few members of the wagon train: Charles Stanton, Tamsen Donner, Mary Graves, James Reed, and Elitha Donner. Occasionally, we'll be treated to flashbacks or first-person letters from other characters, often giving us peripheral information that's vital to the story. What was scintillating, though, was the way Katsu's characters come alive. They are written as whole people, who have complex and sometimes selfish desires, motivations, and failings. Each one of them also has (mostly) a lot of redeeming value, and as a reader, I found myself relating to them, rooting for them.
The female characters, in particular, are written as incredibly strong and powerful, despite the fact that women in this time period are traditionally seen as the weaker sex, and the Proverbs woman is the sought-after helpmate for any God-serving man. Tamsen Donner, for example, is a woman who is beautiful and alluring, and she knows it. In fact, she actively views her beauty as the only weapon a woman has in a world of cruel, powerful men who can take what they want without consequences. She is shocked by her own maternal instincts regarding her daughters and stepdaughters, and while she's not always a good mother, she actively seeks to protect them at every turn, and isn't afraid to do what must be done. She has definite mean-girl vibes, in other words, but she evens it out with a kindness that astonishes even her. It is her power and strength that ultimately turns the party against her, giving ways to rumors about her being a witch (though some of that could be her belief in herbal remedies and talismans.)
Charles Stanton, on the other hand, is presented as a reasonable, decent man, twisted and haunted by his own demons, unsure that he deserves to ever be free of them. He's by far one of the most sensible men in the wagon train, and one of the "heroes" of the story, if there can be such. Yet, he's never portrayed as a saint, and I appreciate that. The fact is, he makes mistakes. He does his best. He fails. Stanton is, in a sense, what most of us wish we were -- flawed, human, but always trying to make up for it and take the next best step, even when he doesn't know what that is. The mark of an exceptional writer is someone who can take these characters and turn them into people who are morally gray and complex, but still manage to be people with whom the reader can fall in love.
What speaks even more to this is the fact that with the exception of two characters, every name in this book is historical and taken from the real-life events. My wife, ever curious about all things behind-the-scenes, pointed this out as we were out to dinner one night. I was fifty pages from the end, and she couldn't help but look up the fate of all the historical figures after whom the characters are named. And while obviously Katsu took enormous creative license with their personalities, I still found myself inwardly cheering when someone actually made it to California after their ordeal. Really, doesn't this say something about the suspension of disbelief Katsu created for her readers?
The Writing Style
Usually, when a writer is being a bit verbose, I notice right away. I'm a fast reader, but if there are multiple long, compound sentences in a row full of flowery description, my eyes will trip and stumble, and then I have to go back and read it a few times. I get to the end of a chapter slowly, and end up slightly frustrated. But with a good author, one who really knows their craft, I begin reading, and suddenly I'm at the next chapter and I didn't remember going back or checking up on where I am. The words melt off the page and become pictures, the descriptions vivid and colorful, and I'm transported.
That was this book. It struck a beautiful balance between description and dialogue, action and recovery, and everything had a purpose. I hated that she killed a dog (spoiler alert, but it's for your own good.) But she actually had to do it, and when I understood why, I begrudgingly gave her that one. The action was slow-burning but it didn't drag, and her words were colorful without being abstract. The words flowed off the page with such acuity that it might have just been telepathically inserted into my mind, and that's the best kind of book.
Katsu does an excellent job of instilling the theme of hunger through the entire book. It isn't just hunger for food, or even hunger for human flesh. It's a hunger for power. For a new life. To erase past mistakes. Physical lust and romantic longing. Even hunger for knowledge and understanding. The existential longing for something someone can't, or shouldn't have. It leaves the reader immersed in this world where everyone has some form of this hunger, and it leads the characters to confront their own worst natures as they crack under the pressure of want and need.
The other thing she instills throughout the book is the dangers of mob mentality. As the book progresses, there is very much a supernatural threat, but the vast majority of the wagon train considers the problem to be wolves until confronted with visible proof. Settlers become sick and go mad in a matter of hours with no discernible cause. Strange attacks come from outside the camps. Yet, a darker sickness still haunts them: themselves. Each person loses possessions, animals, and family. Even the most fortunate of them can see their dreams slipping through their fingers with each passing day. The pressure takes a toll, and they begin turning on one another. As I said with Nothing But Blackened Teeth, evil can be found in normal people making bad decisions under pressure, and we make terrible decisions when incited by our peers, As they say, nothing unites a group better than hatred of a common enemy. Eventually, some of the characters even begin using this mob mentality to their advantage, to get rid of those who might spill their sinister secrets.
In the comments, if you've read this book, please discuss any other themes you might have noticed. I'd love to hear your interpretations!
The Cultural Tropes
One thing I sincerely loved about the book is that Alma Katsu used a sensitivity reader. For those of you who don't know, this is someone who reads a work with cultural sensitivity in mind. Specifically, in her acknowledgements, she says,
"It is always difficult to balance historical inclusion of the very real -- and often very harmful -- prevailing attitudes that existed at the time, in particular toward native peoples and their cultures, and at the same time not to in any way perpetuate or advocate for those views. The often problematic attitudes toward Native American groups demonstrated in some of the white settlers in the text do not reflect the feelings and thoughts of myself or the team."
Now, she approaches many cultural paradigms of the time that we consider harmful now. There is rampant misogyny, homophobia, some religious bigotry, and an obvious, hefty helping of racism. Katsu worked carefully, and mostly successfully, at addressing these issues while neither sweeping them under the rug, nor promoting the perspectives being presented as virtuous. To be honest with you, I wish more authors would approach such things this way, and I hope to see more of it, particularly in historical works.
My One Qualm
Content warning: sexual assault/child molestation
There is one thing that bothered me a bit about this book. When I was checking through reviews on Goodreads, one person said something about Katsu writing a child molester/rapist as "it's okay, because family curse." Now, I didn't quite read it that way, and I'm not going to say which character, for the sake of spoilers. But I will say that the most poignant line in the entire book (""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.") is reserved for this character. I spent so much time hating him that when it came around, I was gobsmacked at the level of empathy I felt that I was being directed to feel, To be honest, I felt a little resentful of that. It's not enough to diminish my enjoyment of the book, and I appreciate the endeavor to show the bad and the good of each, complex character. I just can't bring myself to root for the man after the rest of the plot had unfolded. I had to draw a line. I leave it to you to interpret for yourself.
With that one exception, The Hunger shines as a supernatural reimagining of a great historical tragedy. I wouldn't go in expecting happy endings and smiles, but it does end on a note of hope, and when I realized that, I sobbed and clutched at my wife, because it felt like such a gift after all that I had been through while reading this book. Alma Katsu did tremendous amounts of research and work for this book, and it soars miles over my wildest expectations with its consideration and its intrepid depiction of the human condition in the worst situation that any one of us can imagine -- with the added bonus of whatever is lurking in the darkness.
I can tell you two things: one, I heartily enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more of Katsu's prose in the future. Two, my next Pathfinder character just might be named Tamsen.
P.S. -- on a personal note, Alma Katsu, if you ever read this. Thank you for not fridging your gays.
Purchase This Book: