Gabrielle Burton has been thinking about Tamsen Donner, the wife of leader of the doomed pioneer party, for more than 25 years.
She and her family – her husband and three daughters – retraced Tamsen’s journey across the United States in a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Burton recounted that 1970s journey in a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, published in 2009 by University of Nebraska Press.
But writing a memoir didn’t get Tamsen Donner out of Burton’s system. She still heard Tamsen’s insistent voice inside her head. Why, Burton wondered, had Tamsen sent her small children to safety that terrible winter of 1846 and stayed behind in the treacherous Sierra Nevada to look after George Donner, who lay close to death?
Burton attempts to answer that unknowable mystery in her new novel, Impatient With Desire. Written in a diary format, based on letters sent by Tamsen to her family back East, Impatient With Desire is a lyrical novel that explores a woman’s excruciating dilemma: should she remain loyal to her husband or her children?
Burton will be speaking about Tamsen Donner and her new novel at Book Passage on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm. Her book has received rave reviews. It was an Indie Next Pick and a Borders Fiction pick.
I have written previously about Burton’s fascination with the Donner Party. I can relate to it since I, too, love history. I also admire how she has spun out both fiction and nonfiction books about the Donner Party.
Here’s how Burton describes her book:
“In the spring of 1846, Tamsen Donner, her husband, George, their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers headed to California on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives out West. Everything that could go wrong did, and an American legend was born.
The Donner Party. We think we know their story--pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive--but we know only that one harrowing part of it. Impatient with Desire brings us answers to the unanswerable question: What really happened in the four months the Donners were trapped in the mountains? And it brings to stunning life a woman--and a love story--behind the myth.
Tamsen Eustis Donner, born in 1801, taught school, wrote poetry, painted, botanized, and was fluent in French. At twenty-three, she sailed alone from Massachusetts to North Carolina when respectable women didn't travel alone. Years after losing her first husband, Tully, she married again for love, this time to George Donner, a prosperous farmer, and in 1846, they set out for California with their five youngest children. Unlike many women who embarked reluctantly on the Oregon Trail, Tamsen was eager to go. Later, trapped in the mountains by early snows, she had plenty of time to contemplate the cost of progress.
Historians have long known that Tamsen kept a journal, though it was never found. In Impatient with Desire, Burton draws on years of historical research to vividly imagine this lost journal--and paints a picture of a remarkable heroine in an extraordinary situation. Tamsen's unforgettable journey takes us from the cornfields of Illinois to the dusty Oregon Trail to the freezing Sierra Nevada Mountains, where she was forced to confront an impossible choice.”
Impatient with Desire is a passionate, heart-wrenching story of courage, hope, and love in hardship, all told at a breathless pace. Intimate in tone and epic in scope, Impatient with Desire is absolutely hypnotic.