- Author: Alma Katsu
- Genre: Horror/Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: March 6, 2018
- Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
CONTENT WARNING: death of a child, gore, blood, murder, suicide attempt, racism, homophobia, violence, infidelity, harm to an animal, incest, suicide, sexual assault on a child, cannibalism
Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party.
Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the isolated travels to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They cannot seem to escape tragedy … or the feeling that someone — or something — is stalking them. Whether it’s a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner (who some think might be a witch), their ill-advised choice of route through uncharted terrain, or just plain bad luck, the ninety men, women, and children of the Donner Party are heading into one of the deadliest and most disastrous Western adventures in American history.
As members of the group begin to disappear, the survivors start to wonder if there really is something disturbing, and hungry, waiting for them in the mountains … and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.
Let me start by saying that there are a LOT of content warnings in this book. I had no idea exactly what I was in for. I mean, I knew, just from the basics of history about the Donner Party, that there was going to be murder and cannibalism. But this book took things to a whole new level.
Katsu has put a new spin on this story that makes it absolutely terrifying — I mean, even more so that it already was. What if the tragedy associated with the Donner Party wasn’t just bad luck? What if there was a more sentient evil, lurking out in the wilderness, waiting for an isolated party with what might just be the worst luck ever to just come along and be prey to this evil? That’s the twist that this story takes, and it merges with historical fact well enough that this story will stay with me long after finishing the book.
The characters are incredibly engaging. The main characters were fleshed out with a history, a personality, and aspirations that made them feel realistic and accessible in a way that history often glosses over, preventing the story from feeling dry and boring. I was invested in their story, and I found myself slipping into that difficult place, where I *knew* what was going to happen to the people, but I still desperately hoped for a different outcome.
There’s a strong sense of foreshadowing throughout the story, and it only grows stronger. Right from the start, there’s hints of tension that grow as the story goes on and the members of the party struggle: they fight within and begin to break off into separate groups, their rations dwindle and this furthers the arguments between family groups, and then more tragedies begin to pile up. They aren’t sure who or what to blame, so they all start to blame each other.
“She had always been taught that the punishments for one’s sins worked in mysterious ways. That sometimes even small misdeeds could have great, unforeseen consequences.”
The original story was already creepy, knowing what could happen to a group of people trapped in the wilderness, during the winter, with no food and no means of escape. However, add in the supernatural element of something evil that is stalking the group, and this is literally the stuff of nightmares.
The story isn’t just told of the events, but it also delves into the backstories of the main characters. It helps to explain why they are so motivated to make this terrifying journey across the country to California, leaving everything they knew behind. I found myself completely absorbed in the story from the start until the end. Just be prepared to lose some sleep while reading this. And your appetite.
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 10
Categories: Book Review