The Hunger – Alma Matsu, 2018. Rating: 4/5
“…never take no cutoffs, and hurry along as fast as you can.”
That’s advice from an actual letter from young Virginia Reed, one of the few surviving members of the Donner Party, the ill-fated group of pioneers who both lingered too long on the trail, and took the difficult, unproved Hastings route to California. The group was snowed in for the winter of 1846-1847 at Truckee Lake, where some desperate individuals resorted to cannibalism to survive.
That quote gives me chills every time I read it.
The real-life drama with its twist of the macabre is endlessly fascinating. The story is intrinsically filled with suspense, illustrating the great range of the human condition: from heroism to depravity. The tale of the Donner Party doesn’t need much to tip it over into a horror story, which is exactly what Matsu does in The Hunger.
Matsu fleshes out the characters from history books and old correspondence and succeeds in bringing them vividly to life for us. Through shifting points of view and flashbacks to the pioneers’ pre-trail lives, we get to know Tamsen Donner, George Donner’s young and controversial wife; Edward Stanton, one of the most eligible bachelors in the group; Lewis Keseberg a sharp-tempered German immigrant, and others. Everyone is traveling to California for a fresh start. But there is no true fresh start: many of the pioneers are carrying a secret—or a sin—in their hearts. The trip becomes a type of penance. To make matters worse (!) they’re being stalked by a supernatural horror along their way.
Matsu beautifully captures the immediacy of place: we feel the vast and eerie isolation of the prairie and the punishing salt desert. We sense the magnitude of the pioneers’ undertaking. We share their ever-present (and valid) fears of the dangers that lurk everywhere. Our paranoia grows alongside theirs.
The Hunger is a slow, satisfying burn, heavy with foreboding and punctuated by sudden, shocking brutalities. By the time the group is snowed in, we readers are on tenterhooks. And we’re kind of left there. The immediate end of the story is satisfying, but it comes almost too soon after such an extensive build up. We’re left with loose ends. Or perhaps, we’re left to our imagination, or to history. It might be because I was enjoying the book so much, I just got greedy for more.
The Hunger will leave you thinking. About taboos. About what is considered unnatural—historically and today. And about the hunger of humanity: the disease and darkness in the human heart.