The true-life story of the Donner party, American pioneers who set out for California in 1846 but took a poorly advised shortcut through the mountains and ended up snowed in for the winter, with survivors reportedly resorting to cannibalism, is terrifying enough on its own. In Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, a hint of the supernatural is added to the proceedings to create an absorbing, menacing thriller.
Katsu opens her novel as a rescue team arrive at an abandoned cabin the summer after George Donner’s party set off. They find nothing but “a scattering of teeth”, and “what looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin”. She then leaps back in time, as the long wagon train makes its way across the vast empty spaces of the American prairie. Her descriptions of the land are movingly beautiful, but there is danger even here, as we learn that a child has vanished. “A young boy might be swallowed up in all this vastness, in the unrelenting space that stretched in all directions, in the horizons that yoked even the sun down to heel.”