Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why Does the Tale of the Donner Party Continue to Fascinate?
Donner Lake

When I was in elementary school I read George Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger, then considered the definitive book about the Donner Party. I found it fascinating and macabre to learn about the ill-fated pioneers who got trapped by the Sierra snows in 1846 and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

If I wanted to forget their story, I could not, for every time my family drove from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe (which we did a lot, for skiing or summer fun) we would drive past Donner Lake. The clear blue lake was named after that band of pioneers and although it was much smaller than its mighty lake neighbor to the east, it was still beautiful.

My education about the Donner party might have ended there except for Jim Houston’s wonderful novel Snow Mountain Passage. When it came out in 2001, both my husband and I gobbled it up. In lyrical prose, Houston describes the travails of the travelers, and the reader can almost imagine herself starving and desperate.

But then Ethan Rarick, a journalist I know and admire, came out in 2008 with Desperate Passage, a narrative account that incorporated new archeological research from the site where the settlers camped for four months, along with a new understanding of the effects of hunger and starvation. The New York Times gave it a stunning review, and I read it and began to recommend it to everyone I saw.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying I have unwittingly turned into a Donner Party junkie. I am currently reading The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown, and although I am just in the early chapters I can say with assurance this is a wonderful narrative by a wonderful writer.

So when I saw Bill Deverell’s LA Times review of the new book Searching for Tamsen Donner, which tells the story of one woman’s 35+ year quest to understand one of the woman pioneers, I knew I had to read the book. It is a most unusual Donner Party narrative, for rather than writing a narrative of the Donner’s cross-country journey, Gabrielle Burton takes her husband and five daughters on a road trip, visiting spots that Tamsen Donner lived in along the way. The catch? The road trip was in 1977, when Burton was trying to write a novel that touched, but did not focus, on Tamsen Donner. It has taken Burton a quarter century to come to terms with the meaning of that road trip – her thoughts about motherhood, how to combine her family life with her writing life, how to create a meaningful partnership with her husband when both were born in a era where men and women embraced traditional roles, and more. The result is part memoir, part historical recreation, part travelogue. (Oh, and by the way her novel on Tamsen Donner will be published in 2010.)

I wanted to find out more about Gabrielle Burton and her fascination with Tamsen Donner so I sent her some questions.

When did you start to become so fascinated by Tamsen Donner? Can you
describe how your initial interest grew into a sort of obsession?

I chanced upon her by accident in 1972 at Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, when a writer, William Lederer, said, "Last night, I dreamt you were going to write a book about people eating each other to survive." I had no idea what it meant, nor did he. Months later, I was writing a short story about a cross-country trip, and my husband was helping me with the geography. "You'd have to go over Donner Pass," he said. "What's that?" I asked. "You know," he said, "where they ate each other to survive." This was the first time I had ever heard of the Donner Party and, when I got out books on them, Tamsen Donner leapt off the page. My short story became a novel, a small fraction of it about Tamsen. After seven years and numerous rejections, I put it in a drawer, and started another novel, which took another 7 years to be published. In between numerous other projects, I found myself returning again and again to the mystery of Tamsen Donner.
Why are you so intrigued by her?

I never thought about this until a reader at U of Nebraska Press asked: What drew you to such a disturbing remote character? I was taken aback: Disturbing? Remote? News to me. When I considered the question, I came up with a lot of answers. In those early days in the women's movement, we were all searching for heroines--for ourselves and for our daughters--and Tamsen Donner was a remarkable woman. She had five daughters as I did and, although 2 of hers were stepdaughters, that parallel carried me quite a while. My Catholic upbringing had made me comfortable with gruesome martyr stories, thus the cannibalism and gore that typically predominate in stories about the Donner Party neither repelled nor intrigued me deeply. I've always been interested in survival stories, wondering how I would fare in a similar situation. In the early days of the women's movements, I felt that we--my "sisters," my family, and I--were pioneers, searching for new ways to work and love. The common representation of Tamsen as a "heroine" because she stayed with her husband until death did they part at the cost of her own life, rankled me and scared me because I was afraid that an authentic part of me, my writing, might be sacrificed to marriage and motherhood. In the beginning, because so little was known about Tamsen, she was a blank page I was trying to write my story on.

Which of her qualities do you admire most?

Endurance, because it's always based on hope--which, a famous Biblical line to the contrary, I think is the greatest virtue. Not only did she endure four and a half months trapped in the mountains, basically in an underground yurt with a dying husband and five children, she had already survived personal tragedy years before when her first husband, son, and prematurely born daughter died within a 3 month period. Her letters indicate that she suffered depression and came out of it. I admire enormously people who pick themselves up and not only survive, but prevail. She also was incredibly feisty. She was a woman who knew her worth.

Why do you think she decided to remain in the mountains with her husband
George Donner rather than walk to safety with her daughters?

No one knows these things. She was a woman of principle--she had taken vows. Her husband was dying--she loved him. To leave him to die alone in the mountains all by himself would have been a decision none of us would want to make or live with. Another rescue party was expected, but never came. My belief is that she always intended to get out, to join her daughters as soon as George died. Indeed, she started out, but never made it.

Your book details your journey from contented mother and housewife to
feminist who seeks her own professional path and a more equal arrangement
with your husband around child rearing and housekeeping. Yet you are
intrigued by Donner, who lived in a different era with such different
expectations. What parallels did you find between your lives?
I was never a contented mother and housewife. I was quite miserable, but until the women's movement came along I thought it was my own failure as a "real woman" and I kept it to myself. My husband jokes that I completely misrepresented myself, and he's absolutely right: I pretended to him, the world, and myself that all I wanted was to be a wife and mother. My first book, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed to Cross the Street, is about how the women's movement gave me hope and voice, and the subsequent changes in our family and ourselves.

Other than the qualities mentioned above that drew me to Tamsen, she was a woman who had adventure along with being a wife and mothering five children. Discovering her when I was already married, had five children, and decided I wanted to write, she seemed like a terrific role model.

Why did your book take 27 years to finish? You went on your trip to retrace
the steps of the Donner Party thinking you would be writing a novel that
included Tamsen Donner. At what point, and why, did you decide to write a

It took 27 years because I continually put it aside for other things. I would say that at least 3 different women wrote that book. One of those women was afraid that if she wrote about her wonderful family, some terrible thing would happen that would disprove her. Mostly, life intervened.

I took out a draft in 2006, horrified to see that the last notes I had received on the ms. were in 1988. I thought, Well, I can sit around kicking myself for the years gone by, but face it, nobody cares about this but me. A huge motivation was to see Tamsen's seventeen extant letters in print. Searching for TD went to 19 agents before U of Nebraska. I had told my husband, If no one ever publishes this book, I'm going to publish a booklet of her letters and drive to the Donner Museum to get them to sell it.

I didn't set out to write a memoir, but just to tell the story of our trip and what Tamsen Donner meant to our family. I still don't think of it as a memoir, though I suppose it is in an offbeat way.

I did write a novel about Tamsen, Impatient With Desire--not at all like that apprentice novel of so many years ago--which will be published by Hyperion, Winter, 2010.

Three books have come out about the Donner Party since Jan. 2008. The event
took place in 1846 more than 140 years ago. Why is America still fascinated
by their experiences?

Tamsen Donner, mythical herself, was part of our great American myth: The Overland migration that expanded the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The migration lasted only 20 years, but the pioneers in their covered wagons on the Oregon and California Trails live deep in our self-image and our dreams. Picking up stakes and "moving West" embodies all that we Americans love to think forms our national character--exploration, quest, adventure, unbridled optimism, romance, heroism, wide open spaces, bigness, boldness, epic. It also contains other parts we don't claim as readily--sexism, racism, abandonment of the old, theft of land, violent displacement of peoples, murder, and of course cannibalism. The Donner Party's trip West seeking a better life is the American dream gone sour. It's a timeless story, still a mystery, cautionary tale, and challenge.


Tracey said...

Fascinating interview. You should place it elsewhere. Two questions: where does Burton live? And how come Tamsen Donner is called Tamsen DONNER? (Or did I miss something?)

Daniel James Brown said...

Andy--As a long time, and I mean LONG time patron of Cody's I was pleased to find your blog and your kind words about my book The Indifferent Stars Above. You might be interested to know that Gabrielle Burton and I have exchanged books and are each enjoying the other's work.

BTW, I grew up in Berkeley and Cody's was always a big part of my life. Anyway, best wishes to you in your new endeavor....

Daniel James Brown