Hungry for Love: Love and Secrets in Alma Katsu's 'The Hunger'
This essay is an analysis, not a review. Lots of spoilers ahead. If you are planning on Reading Katsu’s novel, you might want to do that first. Otherwise, forge ahead, brave reader.
Based on a true story that almost any American will be familiar with, the Donner Party, Alma Katsu’s The Hunger weaves fictional elements into one of the most famous American tragedies in history. A wagon train of nearly ninety people set out from Independence, Missouri in June of 1846. As supplies run out, factions arise, arguments ensue about leadership, and rifts develop separating the wagon train into two separate groups. Children begin disappearing from tents; a mysterious disease begins to spread through the camp, causing those affected to become feverish, eventually violent, and finally to run off into the wilderness; paranoia takes hold; families and groups within the already factious bands look for a scapegoat. As the train dwindles down to but a remnant of the original ninety or so members, they slowly begin to realize that a predator stalks the weak, the sick, the solitary. On its surface, readers may guess that The Hunger has something to do with cannibalism, and they’d be right: after all, the novel fictionalizes the tragic history of the Donner Party. However, Katsu’s elegant style and powerful storytelling speak not to hungers of the gut, but of the heart. Through the characters of Tamsen Donner, Charles Stanton, and James Reed, Katsu builds a strong case, not only for the idea that we are all capable of becoming monsters, but also for the redeeming power of love.
This novel makes a number of claims about the human condition, two of which stand prominently above the others: “Everybody has secrets”, and “Love redeems”.
The first of these claims, secrets, may fall into any number of categories in life: there are secrets that are surprises, secrets that are embarrassing, secrets told in confidence, and there are, of course, deep dark secrets, the kind kept in the hope of never seeing the light of day. The last of these tend to dominate The Hunger: Tamsen Donner was in love—passionate, erotic love—with her own biological brother: James Reed was a closeted homosexual: Elitha Donner hears the voices of the dead: Charles Stanton keeps secret the true nature of his late fiancé’s suicide. Should any of these secrets escape, that character may face exile from the community. The American West in the 1840s was still very much a wilderness. Should a character be banished for incest, buggery, or witchcraft (Tamsen, Reed, and Elitha respectively), in winter, alone, with few to zero supplies, it would have been a death sentence. As a consequence, the secrets in The Hunger cause great psychological, at times even physical, pain, as in the case of Elitha Donner, who survives sexual assault. As each character bears their own burden, they suffer their own sorrows.
While characters may subconsciously worry about this social pariahism, it is their secrets that function as personal hells in The Hunger. Characters generally seem to be able to deal with being an outcast, or being an “other”, in the eyes of the community. For instance, Tamsen Donner’s brews, concoctions and herbal remedies cause others to whisper that she is a witch and cast sidelong glances. She nonetheless holds her head high refusing to be shamed by their judgments. Even her affairs, not all of which have been kept quiet, and though they cause some degree of emotional, perhaps even physical distress, are but a symptom:
Did she seek them out or did they find her, these dark brooding men with their secrets? They never stayed, but their effect on her remained, leaving a need for more, like certain addictive herbs that can cause trembling when a dose is removed too quickly (131)
Framing her affairs as addiction, the text suggests these affairs are only the effect of some past trauma. Tamsen’s true pain stems from her own sense of worthlessness, a feeling that she wasn’t “clean enough on the inside” (345), a shattered “something within her” (351). In a flashback to her wedding day, she rides in an open wagon with her brother, Jory. He passively attempts to dissuade her of her marriage to George Donner, suggesting Donner is too old, or that Tamsen might find someone better:
’He’s much older than you. Do you think he can make you happy?’
She didn’t answer. The question felt far too weighted. She wondered if Jory could possibly sense that. But if he didn’t—if he didn’t understand why it hurt when he protested her marriage—then he couldn’t possibly feel the way she did. (348)
While the narrator clearly broadcasts Tamsen’s erotic feelings for her brother to readers, the narrator concurrently leaves Jory’s feelings about Tamsen a somewhat more open question. While her reticence in the quote above may seem to affirm the question of Jory’s feelings in the negative, there remains the issue of the “ifs” in that reflection, which leave open a world of possibility. “If” = possibility. That the narrator provides only Tamsen’s perspective complicates matters. Whether readers will believe Jory reciprocates those emotions depends entirely on whether they think Tamsen reads her brother’s body language, tone and motive accurately. Tamsen’s suffering, then, may be said to stem from living in this space of potential without ever achieving actualization, or even denial, closure; that is to say, a sense of certainty. She never risked making her feelings known to Jory—despite the incest taboo. Tamsen sums up her hell by reflecting that, “Love was not meant for everyone” (351).
Stanton’s hell, too, is personal. He never claims direct responsibility for his fiancé’s suicide, but he does torture himself in a confession of sorts to Mary Graves, with whom he falls in love on the trail. Like a vinyl caught in a loop, he bemoans, “I can never forgive myself—it would be like letting her die again. I already fail to save her, over and over again, in my dreams. Every night, I watch her drown again” (236). And, rather than shift blame to others, he accepts it, perhaps even piles it on: “But I was guilty. Don’t you see? Not of Lydia’s suicide, but of other things. Knox knew … he’d discovered the affairs I’d had since” (238). And yet, it may be that Stanton is lying by omission; neither he nor the narrator, aside from this single instance, ever mention any affairs; it’s not even clear here whether “affairs” means sleeping with other women—can you really have an affair on a partner who has died?—or whether Stanton is talking out of both sides of his mouth, where “affairs” means, more generally, any sequence of specified events. In fact, what readers come to discover is that Lydia dies by her own hand, letting herself fall through the thin ice of a frozen pond. The cause of the suicide? Repeatedly being raped by her father, eventually resulting in pregnancy. Moreover, Lydia’s father offers to pay Stanton for his silence—though he frames this as if Stanton were somehow to blame for her suicide—which forces Stanton to navigate an impossible space: tell the truth, or break the promise he made to Lydia, who confided in him shortly before her death, never to tell. Stanton’s sin, then, the cause of his psychological flagellations, is his failure to bring the rapist, the pedophile—Lydia’s own father—to justice.
But hell is not permanent. Escape, release, redemption, is possible. Common wisdom holds that ‘we can’t love others until we love ourselves’; Katsu’s The Hunger, however, suggests otherwise, that love, in virtually any form, redemptive. Love is not one thing, it is many. In fact, it’s kind of hard to know what love is. That is, perhaps, the reason why the most famous passage on love of all time, I Corinthians 13:1, defines love not by what is, but mostly by what it’s not: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (emphasis mine). Katsu plays with this idea of deconstructed love in her opus. According to Katsu’s text, love is not ravenous (as Reiner and Lewis Keseberg), and love keeps no secrets. The text also argues for love as sacrifice and duty, the way a soldier may give his life for love of country. It may be difficult, even impossible for some characters in The Hunger to love themselves, but they are loved by others, and take something of this love with them. Tamsen Donner is loved by her husband, despite her affairs; Stanton is loved by Mary Graves, despite his secret guilt. While Tamsen and Stanton may never experience love in its fullest sense, they do perform a dutiful type of love. Tamsen, “For so long … had wanted nothing more than to be rid of [her husband]. And yet now, given the chance, she couldn’t leave him—it felt physically impossible” (357). Despite the fact that any “affection [for George] had long since fled her”, she had learned from his love for her, “a form of compassion” (356), and performs her duty as his wife. Stanton, on the other hand, sacrifices his own life, so that others may live. Though he may be nihilistic—quite literally from the first page of chapter one, he thinks of the prairie as, “flimsy, meaningless, inconsequential”, and doesn’t “shrink from the feel of [a] cold metal [razor] against his throat. In fact, he kind of likes it” (8)—he dies not in despair, but in the hopes that his sacrifice will allow Mary Graves to escape to safety. Both characters die brutally, Stanton with a gun in his mouth, and Tamsen murdered by Keseberg, willingly giving her living body for food. Gruesome though these deaths are, and perhaps such is the price to be paid for their sins, the text suggests that through these acts of duty, compassion and sacrifice, Tamsen and Stanton find redemption, if not in the eyes of readers, then certainly their own.
There’s one final character I’d like to touch on. James Reed.
Unlike Tamsen and Stanton, Reed survives the novel. In the eyes of the community, his sin is homosexuality—remember, this is 1846—and thus a secret that must be kept at all costs, even if he has to murder someone to ensure that—and he does. Morally, however, Reed’s torture comes in the form of guilt for betraying the trust of his wife and children, “that he hadn’t done everything in his power to protect [them]. He had made mistakes” (74). His wife seems to have known about his relationship with a man named McGee back in Springfield. Although, she seems not to have cared, or at least to have possessed some herculean capacity for forgiveness. Moreover, their marriage was not one of romantic love, but rather, “a common marriage of convenience, in many ways like brother and sister rather than man and wife” (73), ironically foreshadowing Jory and Tamsen on her wedding to George Donner. Where Reed differs from Tamsen and Stanton, however, is in his understanding of love, which he learns from his wife. While Stanton and Tamsen learn the sacrificial and dutiful qualities of love, respectively, they do not necessarily learn the power of love’s forgiveness. Reed’s former lover, McGee, once said,
Run away with me … But Reed had told him no. Edward had been full of rage and hurt, a kind of righteousness that came with youth; he accused Reed of not wanting to abandon his family because he was afraid, but Reed wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t hiding. That was what McGee hadn’t understood. Reed did love them, in his way. Perhaps he sensed that the love they bore him back was different—more enduring, more forgiving—than the kind he’d find in Edward McGee. And in that, he been right, hadn’t he? (372)
Reed’s uncertainty stands out here, and elsewhere in the text, as it should, and is reminiscent of Tamsen’s “If”. He struggles with the concept of love. And who of us can say for certain what love actually is? But what he comes to understand, the reason why he lives, perhaps chooses to go on living, is that he sees in love what Tamsen and Stanton do not: “Reed once thought that love was akin to passion, but he saw now that it was something different entirely; that it was, perhaps, a kind of faith (372). Sacrifice and duty are certainly a kind of love, or a part of it. Passion too, has its place. Without faith, though, Katsu’s text seems to argue, the puzzle is missing pieces.
When I asked Katsu if this novel was in fact about love, she replied, “It’s about a lot of things, I think. Love, loving your fellow man enough to make hard choices. But also some of us failing, taking the easy way out, making monsters of ourselves”. The monsters in this book, which I have decided to eschew in order to focus on love, are those that give into their passions, such as Lewis and Reiner Keseberg; this is exactly what James Reed comes to understand love is not. What distinguishes the “redeemed” from the damned, i.e. people from monsters, in this work is precisely that love of our fellow man that Katsu expounds. Tamsen, Stanton and Reed are all faced with very difficult choices. In the end, they make the choice that benefits the wider community, rather than their own selfish desires. And that is a type of love.