IMPATIENT WITH DESIRE

The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner

Gabrielle Burton

The extraordinary novel from award-winning author Gabrielle Burton captures the struggle of a historical heroine in her attempt to balance adventure, love, and family.

Tamsen Donner was a pioneer in 1846 in more ways than one. After months of preparation and research, she and her husband George, along with their five daughters and eighty other pioneers, headed west on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives in California. But everything that could go wrong did… and an American legend was born.

The Donner Party. We may think we know their story—a cautionary tale of starving pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive—but Impatient with Desire brings to stunning life a woman—and a love story—behind the myth.

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The extraordinary novel from award-winning author Gabrielle Burton captures the struggle of a historical heroine in her attempt to balance adventure, love, and family.

Tamsen Donner was a pioneer in 1846 in more ways than one. After months of preparation and research, she and her husband George, along with their five daughters and eighty other pioneers, headed west on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives in California. But everything that could go wrong did… and an American legend was born.

The Donner Party. We may think we know their story—a cautionary tale of starving pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive—but Impatient with Desire brings to stunning life a woman—and a love story—behind the myth.

In Impatient with Desire, Burton imagines Tamsen’s famous lost journal, bringing to life a remarkable heroine in an extraordinary situation. A timeless American story written from a woman’s perspective, NPR called this winner of the Western Heritage Award: “The literary equivalent of El Dorado–the lost city of gold.”

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  • Voice
  • Paperback
  • March 2011
  • 256 Pages
  • 9781401341664

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About Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton is the author of the award-winning novels, Impatient with Desire: the Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, and Heartbreak Hotel. Her nonfiction books are Searching for Tamsen Donner and I’m Running Away From Home But I’m Not Allowed To Cross The Street. She wrote the screenplay for Manna From Heaven (MGM DVD), produced by her daughters’ production company, Five Sisters Productions. Her fiction honors include: the Maxwell Perkins Prize, the Western Heritage Award, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. Her screenwriting honors include: the Mary Pickford Prize from American Film Institute, 1st prize in the Austin Heart of Film Screenplay competition, and a Nicholl fellowship given by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Family Circle, Ms. Magazine. She blogs for the Huffington Post and the Nervous Breakdown. She lives with her husband in Venice, CA.

Praise

Winner of the Western Heritage Award for “Outstanding Novel”

“A beautifully written fictional account. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner {who} inspires us with her 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.”
Nina Sankovitch’s Best Books of 2010, Huffington Post

“Burton’s writing tears out the reader’s heart as it brings closure to her quest to understand a woman lost to time. Impatient With Desire finally rescues Tamsen Donner from ignominy, bringing her back to us a robust and very alive woman.”—Erika Schikel, Los Angeles Times

“Unique and exquisite love story.”M Shanmughalingam, Malaysian writer

Discussion Questions

Impatient with Desire begins with the following sentence:
“Imagine all the roads a woman and a man walk until the reach the road they’ll walk together.”

What multiple levels of meanings does this sentence have within the context of the novel? Why is the metaphor of a road an especially evocative first impression for Impatient with Desire?

Near the end, Tamsen reflects on how her entire life was affected by her temperament.
“My whole life my heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. When anyone ever went anyplace, I always wondered: What will they see? What is there that is not here? What waits for them that I am missing? (206)
She then goes on to refer indirectly and ironically to the undreamed of consequences of that temperament. 
I cannot bear it if no one knows what has gone on here. What I have seen. What was waiting for me here that I have not missed.” (206)
Why could Tamsen not bear to have her experience unknown?

Why do you think Burton chose to write this novel as a journal, from Tamsen’s first person perspective?  Were you sympathetic toward Tamsen or did you judge her decisions?  Did you identify with her? Ultimately, did you admire Tamsen or not?  Why?

What do you think about the journal entries and letters as the way of telling the story?  Does it bring you into the head of the characters more? Do you wish that you knew a third person account of what was happening? How does this style of writing inform you as a reader?

The concept of “desire” runs throughout the narrative – desire for food, for adventure, for freedom, for respect.  On page 140, Tamsen stated:
“Yet, every time I bid one of our Ohio-bound neighbors farewell, desire leapt in me. All my life, I have wondered about the place I’m not in. You either are that way or you aren’t, and you can’t imagine the opposite state.” (140)

Do you agree with Tamsen?  Which state do you align with?  Can you understand the other perspective?

Notice the first few words George speaks to Tamsen, when he finds her in his field with a group of students:
“You need permission to be in this field ma’am… I’ll still need to know when you’re here, ma’am. When the corn gets taller, I may have to send in a search party for you.” (1-2)

Notice how Tamsen describes George to her sister:
“I find my new husband a kind friend who does all in his power to promote my happiness & I have as fair a prospect for a pleasant old age as anyone.”

How are George’s first words and Tamsen’s note to her sister unfortunately ironic?

This novel tackles a myriad of subjects — from marriage to motherhood to adventure to independence to Manifest Destiny to survival.  Which of these topics does the novel cover in an especially unique or compelling manner?

Were you surprised at the number and ages of children in the party (22 children under the age of 10)?  How might the children have contributed to the events?  Did the presence of the children make you more or less compassionate toward the adults and their actions?  Since all five of the Donner daughters survive, why do you think there is still so much mystery surrounding what happened?

We learn during the section titled “Hastings Cutoff” that if the women had been able to influence the route with their votes, the party may have never been stranded.  However, Tamsen never blames George for their predicament. Why not?

On page 77-78, Tamsen reflects,
“I’ve lived years on farms, and know incontestably that the strong survive, the weak die off. That is the way of nature, but I used to argue that we can improve on nature, or at least not be as brutal as nature. I don’t have the luxury of theoretical debates anymore, nor am I sentimental as I once was.”

After resorting to cannibalism to keep her children alive, Tamsen thinks:
“And now the great violation is done once, twice, and as many more times as needed, and all I feel is deep relief that the children are visibly stronger and an equally deep anger.” (205)

As omnivores, humans are able to eat just about anything, but choose not to for moral and ethical reasons.  Cannibalism is one of our greatest cultural taboos. However, what would YOU do to save your children?  Whom do you think Tamsen was angry at?

Burton did extensive research prior to writing this novel and comments on this in her Notes:
Impatient with Desire is a work of fiction about an actual historic event and real people. By definition, it’s a work of imagination, which in some ways suits the subject well, since so few hard facts are known about the Donner Party.” (240)

How did you find that reading a work of historical fiction differs from reading a work of non-historical fiction?  In what ways did Burton’s record of Tamsen Donner seem authentic?

We learn from reading the dedication of this novel that the author, similar to Tamsen Donner, has five daughters.  How might this commonality have influenced Burton’s decision to write about the Donners? 

In her Author’s Notes, Burton asks, “Why are we so drawn to [the Donner Party story]?  Because it’s the American dream turned nightmare? Because we wonder what we would have done had we been there?” (244) Why do you think people have been fascinated by this story for so long?

On page 81, Tamsen writes to her sister, “…I find that, when I revisit the past, it often reveals something quite unexpected – too often some humbling or unpleasant truth that seems clear as day now.”  What does revisiting the Donner tragedy reveal to us as individuals as well as culturally?

What “life lesson” can be learned from Tamsen’s story? What did you learn?  About Tamsen Donner?  About yourself?