Gabrielle Burton’s Impatient with Desire is a beautifully written fictional account of the Donner party’s epic journey of 1846. It is a journey whose tragic and gruesome finale is familiar to most Americans. Burton uses years of solid research and a disciplined imagination to fill in the less sensational but still moving details of the trip that began in Illinois and ended in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner, brave, independent, kind, and determined to make her way west both for the adventure of it all and for the advantages she was sure awaited her family in California.
The party of George Donner, Tamsen, their five children, and eighty other pioneers traveled by wagon going west across miles of meadows, mountains, and deserts. Tamsen’s journal entries and letters to her sister back east, imagined by Burton, detail their journey in all its hardships and pleasures. Although only two of Tamsen’s letters while on the trail still exist and her journal was never recovered, Burton uses the facts she does have to evoke the heart and soul of Tamsen, and to record her motivations in beginning the trip, her delights in the journey, and her heroism in the snows of Truckee Meadows. Tamsen kept her five children alive and sane through a regimen of hygiene, chores, and meals (only at the very end was human meat prepared and then it was only for the youngest of the group). In addition to taking care of their bodily needs as best she could, Tamsen inspired them — and now, us — with her own unquenchable spirit, her awe and gratitude for the beauty she saw while crossing the country, and her firm sense of destiny as one who would settle the United States for future generations.
Searching for Tamsen Donner is Burton’s riveting memoir of the trip she took one summer tracking both the trail of the Donner party across the United States and the personal story of Tamsen Donner. Burton’s journey took her to Newburyport Massachusetts, where Tamsen was born, south to North Carolina where she taught school, married, had two children, and then lost all three; and north to Springfield, Illinois where Tamsen met George Donner and from where they began their westward migration. Burton followed the old Oregon-California trail up to the Truckee Meadows, where she slept out beneath the tree then believed to be the tree against which the Donners built their winter shelter over a century earlier. Burton undertook the massive cross country trip with her husband and five children. Her details of life on the road interspersed with facts and questions about the Donner party and memories from Burton’s own life as a writer, mother, and feminist combine to make this an inspiring memoir of fully-engaged motherhood, a riveting history of self-discovery, and a further homage to the spirit and the legacy of Tamsen Donner.