Book Review: The Hunger by Alma Katsu

I’m so excited to get to this book! Alma Katsu is definitely one of my new favorite authors. The Hunger is the second book of hers I’ve devoured. (If you’ll excuse the pun. Or even if you won’t.) She has a brand new book out called The Fervor, which I really want to get and read right now, but I’m forcing myself not to get any new books until I finish my current stack (which means I need to talk with work about how I can get a sabbatical, even though that isn’t a thing in my industry).

But in the meantime, I get to talk about The Hunger!

Cover of The Hunger, with a snowy tree, black tree sculpture and moon, and a dark shadow framing it.

Set on the ol’ Oregon Trail, this book follows the infamous Donner Party as they try to make their way to California. Now, like many people around my age, the bulk of my knowledge regarding pioneer trail life comes from the early computer game, Oregon Trail.  It was always a great day to walk into the computer lab, sit down in front of the old green screen computers, and push those giant floppy disks into the disk drive.  Then the decision-making began: what kind of profession should you choose?  Banker with money to buy provisions? Carpenter with better of odds of fixing the inevitable breakdowns of the wagon? (I never chose farmer.)

But when you left was the most important decision.  Leave too early and risk getting stuck waiting for your path to clear.  Choosing to leave to late, however, almost certainly condemned you to a cold, hungry, miserable death in the snowy mountain passes (assuming you even made it that far without drowning in the river, dying of dysentery, or losing your oxen). 

In real life, the Donner Party “chose poorly,” leaving much too late and taking their sweet time as they started. Katsu really captures that sense of urgency that some members of the party have, realizing this is not going to end well if they don’t get moving, but not wanting to leave the safety of the group. Slowly, it began to dawn on the rest of them that their provisions weren’t going to last forever. As their hunger increased, the distinct absence of game to hunt became ever more noticeable. Who – or what – was competing with them for food?

While I don’t remember ever actually learning about the doomed Donner debacle, I clearly absorbed it somewhere, but only the broad strokes – a group of hopeful pioneers who sought to find a shorter route to California, misjudged the time it would take, became trapped in the mountains, and eventually resorted to cannibalism.  That’s all I knew. 

That didn’t matter in the least though in being able to enjoy this book. It’s creepy and suspenseful, as an insatiable hunger stalks the wagon train. Katsu does a brilliant job of weaving the historical with the fantastical and creating a story you don’t want to stop.  (If I was still a student, this would be the kind of book that I secretly hide inside the textbook to make it look like I’m doing the assigned reading.  Although let’s be honest, I would have already completed the assigned reading too.)

The novel jumps from different characters perspectives as they move out along the trail.  Tragedy strikes early when a horribly mutilated corpse is found on the prairie.  Try as they might to convince themselves that it was an unfortunate animal attack, a sense of uneasiness takes root.  In addition to a shadowed horror, the group also tackles the rising tensions spinning out from a lack of strong leadership, competing personalities, wealth and status differences, and the sheer struggle of surviving the elements.  When they finally find themselves stranded, as we knew they would, all those horrors combine into a seemingly inescapable maw.

I have a deep appreciation for authors who can sweep a reader into history.  Obviously, this is fiction, but Katsu keeps everything grounded in the characters’ reality, with a supernatural element.  Writing from multiple characters’ perspectives can be hit or miss, but I enjoyed jumping around from person to person. We see how the struggles of the trail played out differently for individuals, while also learning what drove them west.   

And if you like this one, I also strongly recommend The Deep, the first book of hers that I read. I found it accidentally while looking for another book of the same title (which I also recommend).  Katsu’s The Deep follows a young woman recovering from the trauma of surviving the sinking of the Titanic.  As World War I rages, a fellow survivor offers her a job working as a nurse on the Britannica, Titanic’s sister ship drafted into becoming a hospital ship.  The story jumps between the two ships and slowly begins to unlock the same darkness haunting both. 

Stayed tuned here and eventually I’ll get to The Fervor as well!

Find The Hunger online:

Author’s website