The YA novel about the Donner Party you never knew you wanted
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Allan Wolf’s novel in verse, “The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices From the Donner Party,” is a finalist for the 2020 Times Book Prize in young adult literature.
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In the 1840s, a party of Midwestern migrants making their way to California became snowbound and succumbed to madness, murder and cannibalism. Ever since, many writers have tried to unravel the mysteries of the Donner Party and gotten bogged down as well, stymied by a sprawling narrative involving close to 100 characters.
In “The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep,” a polyphonic novel in verse for young adults, Allan Wolf turns the story of a group of white settlers — and what he calls “their self-inflicted suffering” — into something hauntingly beautiful.
His book is not only a fascinating cautionary tale, it’s also a tremendous resource, with 50 pages of notes about the real-life characters for those who want to learn more about the events that inspired the novel. I spoke with Wolf on the phone about the research that went into his book and the lessons learned — among them, the best way to turn a former comrade into a meal.
The awards recognize outstanding literary achievements in 12 categories, including the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, with winners to be announced April 16.
What drew you to this material even though the story has been told many times before?
I love the idea that you can begin a book with knowledge hanging over the reader’s head but not over the character’s head. And so everything that the character says or does is laden with this significance that only the reader understands. It’s like the ominous chord in “Jaws.” You know there’s a shark out there somewhere, but the character doesn’t. Also, the concept of hunger was really intriguing to me too.
How did you come up with the idea to give hunger a voice, to make it one of the narrators of your book?
I needed some sort of narrative glue to put it all together, and that narrative glue needs to have greater knowledge than the individual characters do. Nobody knows what hunger is like. There’s no preconceived notion about it. So I can make it whatever it is. There’s no reason that hunger wouldn’t know what happened to humanity from the beginning of time, and so I can create a deeper narrative that way, because the voice can be more omnipotent and omniscient. I can editorialize easily.
Your notes at the end of the novel mention your method of “narrative pointillism.“ Can you explain it?
I’ve been exploring this idea where I take one particular event in history that happened with multiple witnesses, and then I tell that one story through the multiple perspectives of different characters. And the idea is that each individual point of view is like a dot on a Pointillist painting, where the dot is a very specific thing. It’s got its own reality, its own placement, and it’s not until you stand back and see that dot’s context that you see the whole picture.
As a writer of historical fiction, what is your advice for not getting lost in the weeds of research?
I don’t know! It’s a rabbit hole. I love research. To me the ideas spring from the research. All of the historical fiction comes from historical fact. And if it doesn’t come from historical fact, the fiction sounds fictional. What I want to do is, I want the fiction to be truer than the reality.
When do you stop researching?
It’s like looking at a plane crash and you’ve got to put all the pieces together. History doesn’t actually happen; history is what we say happened. Events happen. So I’ve got to try to look at all these events until I see the ghosts rise up. They all throb with these voices, these perspectives, and they’re all clues, and you just allow them to talk. You listen and you begin to see commonalities between different details, and they begin to reconfigure themselves. And so there’s more than just learning about facts and dates. There is really an immersing yourself in the research so that this three-dimensional story can emerge.
Based on your extensive research, what’s the best way to eat a human being?
Well, I’ve thought about that quite a bit. And there’s no evidence that I found of how they went about cooking and eating. There’s little clues here and there. But I think what they mostly did was they would boil the flesh. They tended not to cook it over fire. I think if I were going to eat it, I would definitely cook it over a fire.
Oh, not a stew?
I think if I’m on the road, if I’m trying to get somewhere and a couple of my people in my group fall down dead and I’ve got to keep moving, I’m going to harvest as many muscle fibers as I can. I wouldn’t put it into a stew because that would be too hard to transport. Most of the people who ended up eating the flesh, they weren’t in an environment where they could make a stew.
There’s a line toward the end in which a wolf considers the starving emigrants and wonders why they don’t eat the dead. “Why would you allow hunger to win? With such a banquet as this right beneath your feet?” Do you think cannibalism has become more or less taboo since the 19th century?
I think people now understand that you have to do what you have to do in order to survive. And I think people are probably not as precious about that in a spiritual sense.
I think now we’re more divorced from where our food comes from, so it might be a greater taboo. People just unwrap their food and put it in a microwave.
I think we’re still really squeamish about the idea of eating our own kind. Our problem today is like, How would we even go about it? How would you be able to dismantle a body when all you have is a spork and a Gore-Tex jacket? We don’t even know how to butcher anything. We wouldn’t have the right tools. Other than that, I would guess there’s really been no real change in our attitudes about it.
In modern times, as in old times, it’s when somebody murders you and derives some sort of pleasure from eating your flesh that is the real ghoulishness. When you start talking about Jeffrey Dahmer instead of George Donner, that’s where the ghoul comes in. I think people understand when it’s out of necessity. I would give you permission to eat me, Jim. I’d rather you not kill me to eat me, but if I’m dead anyway, go ahead.
Ruland’s latest book, “Do What You Want,” with Bad Religion, was published in August.
Chelsea G. Summers’ novel, “A Certain Hunger,” follows a food critic, cannibal and proud psychopath from romantic longing to murder to prison.
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