Most are familiar with the tragedy of the Donner-Reed Party, a group of pioneers who set out on the trail to the West in 1846, became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas, and broke that most dreadful of taboos—they ate each other. The party faced a late start (they were the last group to leave Independence that year), bad advice, inadequate supplies, poor leadership, and a series of unfortunate events that ultimately led to their terrible plight. Katsu has added a supernatural twist: long before nature puts impediments in the settlers’ way, a sinister force stalks them. One of the group’s children disappears and is later found butchered, and other members of the party begin to change. As hardship multiplies, the settlers start to turn on one another. Relationships fray at the seams of class division, gender, and religion. Have their sins been given substance, something with a never-ending hunger that seeks to prey on anything with flesh?
Doubtless the historical persons would be horrified by how Katsu has characterized them here. Tamsen Donner is transformed into a beautiful seductress the other settlers believe to be a witch; James Reed hides a secret that could destroy his entire family, one used as impetus for his (true-life) murder of a teamster. Bachelor Charles Stanton likewise flees his past, which holds other taboos. Lewis Keseberg, often portrayed as the villain of the piece, gets a particularly original makeover. The isolation is anxiety-inducing and the tension is perfect: this novel is a model for how to construct the slow-build. Given the plotting, there is less gore than might be expected, but that makes this novel no less terrifying. Well-written and gripping with a strong conclusion, The Hunger is an inventive take on an already morbidly fascinating historical event. Recommended.