Most folks, here in the states at least, know the bare bones of the Donner Party story—that a wagon train made up primarily of the Donner and Reed families, on the way to California became trapped by vicious winter weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Snow bound, starving, some members eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes the bones of that story and through meticulous, exhaustive research, makes you feel every back-breaking mile. She shows you the camaraderie and hopefulness, at least in the beginning, but then the danger, the extreme discomfort, the fear for the unknown, the gnawing hunger. All of it is made shockingly real. Alma excels at introducing many of the real historical characters that made up the wagon train, mixing them so expertly with characters of her own invention that I found myself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to learn who was real and who was not. She gives every character, real or not, their time to shine, weaving in their backstories, showing us the friendships that develop along the way, the halting possibility of love, but also the petty jealousies and hate. There are no real heroes, but there are acts of heroism. The villains of the story are multi-faceted, never hackneyed cardboard characters. The Hunger reminds me, in some ways, of Emma Bull’s Territory, in the way Katsu mixes deep historical research with the supernatural. (and if you haven’t read Territory, which combines the very real characters that populated Tombstone, Arizona, with a supernatural undercurrent, please do.)
If Katsu had stopped there, she would have had one hell of a historical novel, brought to life with bravura language and vivid description. But no, she does not stop there. Instead, Katsu takes this already thrilling story and drapes it with a ratty, diseased shroud of supernatural horror. That horror begins to seep into the lives of the settlers early in the novel, and then escalates, unstoppable, suffocating, ratcheting the tension and dread to an unimaginable degree. There are scenes unimaginable brutality, and scenes of quiet terror, and Katsu handles both with aplomb.
The Hunger is first-rate historical horror. I loved this novel!