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‘Impatient with Desire’ by Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton was a fledgling poet at the 1972 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when she was stopped by the writer William Lederer. He told her he had dreamed she would write a book about people surviving without eating each other.

When Burton asked him what he meant, he cryptically replied: “Most people survive by eating each other. You’re going to write a book that shows a better way.” That set the stage for what would become Burton’s obsession with Tamsen Donner, the matriarch of the Donner family, in whose name one of the darkest chapters in American history is written.

In 1846, Tamsen Donner’s family and 80 fellow pioneers set out in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail, headed for California. Due to a series of miscalculations, they became stranded in the High Sierras during the harsh winter of 1846 and ’47. The starving survivors ate the dead. For Burton, Tamsen was the story’s most riveting subject. Donner was a teacher, adventurer, botanist, wife and, like Burton, mother of five daughters. “I don’t believe in reincarnation or people calling out from the grave,” Burton has written, “but was that not something, an amazing coincidence, a link, a bond?”

Burton has researched Tamsen for 38 years, including retracing the Donner’s overland route from Illinois to the Donner Pass. She documented the journey in her 2009 memoir-history-travelogue, “Searching for Tamsen Donner.”

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Now, with “Impatient With Desire,” Burton has taken her obsession all the way: She inhabits Tamsen Donner, crawling inside her skin, then into the dark, fetid hole in the woods with her starving family, penning journal entries, recording the deaths of fellow pilgrims. Using Tamsen’s 17 surviving letters, Burton gives us Donner’s girlhood, the perilous overland trek and, most important, the credible voice of a heroine lost to time. What emerges is a wholly recognizable woman; imperfect, impetuous, brave, practical and utterly terrified.

As Tamsen watches her children starve she writes, “I would give anything to take upon myself the pain my children now endure. It is nearly intolerable to consider that I may be responsible for that pain.” “Impatient With Desire” is the ultimate exploration of maternal guilt and anxiety.

Donner recalls her seafaring father returning home with a compass “moving as Father slowly turned around, West of the West, there is a country of the mind, planted the seed for my adventurous spirit and wanderlust. . . . It is the way I am.”

This is a central conflict that Burton has explored for years as a writer, a mother and a feminist: How does a woman of independent spirit, bound by gender and the demands of family, satisfy her individual needs without sacrificing her children?

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The only time the book’s tone falters, however, is when Burton allows Tamsen to be too swept up by feminist polemics: “For an instant I felt at one with all the women through time who walked their own unbroken trails, preparing the way for me and my daughters and their daughters and their. . . .”

These moments take us out of Alder Creek circa 1847 and into a women’s studies seminar circa 1975.

Burton does better when she channels the spirit of Manifest Destiny through her characters, showing us the extraordinary hubris and optimism that led thousands of Americans to pioneer the West. “ ‘We will carve out a new country,’ we shouted,” Tamsen recalls as she logs more deaths in her Bible, realizing that “the new country will be no more and no less than the worst and the best of us.”

As weeks drag on and hope of rescue fades, Tamsen realizes she gambled her own desire against the welfare of her family and lost: “I leave it on record that this adventure has gone more horribly wrong than anyone could ever have imagined, and I bear equal blame, as I would have deserved equal credit had it gone right.”

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Burton deftly allows the desperation to escalate so that, by the time Tamsen is digging up the dead, it seems like the perfectly right thing to do. The horror of the act is contextualized, and we marvel not at its savagery but at the heroism of cutting out and cooking up a man’s heart to keep children alive. “My whole life,” Tamsen writes near the end, “my heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. . . . I cannot bear it if no one knows what has gone on here. What I have seen. What was waiting for me here. . . .”

Burton’s writing tears out the reader’s heart as it brings closure to her quest to understand a woman lost to time. “Impatient With Desire” finally rescues Tamsen Donner from ignominy, bringing her back to us a robust and very alive woman.

Schickel is the author of “You’re Not the Boss of Me.”


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