Tamsen Donner Reincarnated?

09/03/2010 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

These days I get two questions a lot.

The first: Do you think you're Tamsen Donner reincarnated?

The long and the short answer to that is Nope.

Why such a curious question? Well, after writing off and on for over thirty-five years about Tamsen Donner, I won the writer's lottery, publishing two books about her in one year: a novel, Impatient with Desire, and a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner.

Which leads to the second question: You wrote about her for over 35 years?

Well, not every day.

I don't believe in reincarnation but, for whatever reason or no reason, I have a tremendous connection to Tamsen Donner that has persisted through rejections, moments of despair, and decades of writing about other things, weaving itself into the very fabric of our family identity. A connection that I sometimes felt obliged me to keep on trying forever to honor Tamsen and other forgotten, unknown, or mythologized-to-death pioneer women.

I chanced upon Tamsen Donner and the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846 by accident when I went to Bread Loaf Writer's Conference with a handful of poems in 1972. One morning, William Lederer, a famous writer(The Ugly American) and teacher on the Bread Loaf staff, stopped me and said, "Last night, I dreamed you were going to write a book about people surviving without eating each other."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Most people survive by eating each other," he said. "You're going to write a book that shows a better way."

"How do I do that?"

"How would I know?" he answered. "It's your book, not mine."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was a mysterious old man--I see now he probably was 60--a world traveler, wise, a little scary. For years I never told anyone what he had said, but I never forgot it.

Back home, months later, I was writing a short story about a couple making a motorcycle trip from Berkeley to Buffalo. I had five daughters within an eight-year span and wrote in the interstices of a vigorous family life. After many drafts, I realized I had written an on-the-road story without one speck of geography.

One night, I asked my husband, who had driven cross-country a half dozen times, what my characters would see on the way. After some time and reminiscences, he said, "They'd have to go over Donner Pass."

"What's that?" I asked.

"You know," he said. "Where they ate each other to survive."

"What did you say? I said.

But I had heard what he said.

I got out books on the Donner Party--the first time I had ever heard of them--and the name Tamsen Donner leapt off the page.

And so began an almost four decade odyssey/obsession/love affair that turned out to involve my family nearly as much as me.

The motorcycle trip story became a novel and I wove a small part of Tamsen Donner into it. Most everything known about her was myth and I wanted to find the woman behind the myth.

Because I was trying to be a writer and mother simultaneously, my five daughters and husband came with me every place Tamsen Donner had been. We went to Newburyport, MA, her birthplace, to North Carolina where she lost her first family in a three-month period, to Springfield, IL where we camped on her & George Donner's farm. We spent a summer retracing the California/Oregon Trail. Our dog was named Tamsen.

After seven years of raised and dashed hopes, I put that novel away and with it, I thought, my interest in the Donner Party. Ten years later, after publishing a different novel, I wrote a book about our family's retracing the California/Oregon Trail. My editor wanted me to reveal more than I wanted to, so that one went to the attic too.

Then in 1996, because I was living in Los Angeles and attending film school at the American Film Institute, my family badgered me to go to the Donner Party Sesquicentennial at Donner Pass. Much to my surprise, my interest was immediately revived. I wrote a screenplay about the Donner Party for my second year MFA project.

A lot of life later, I rewrote--several times--the book about our family's trip retracing the California Trail: a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, that the University of Nebraska published in 2009. It had evolved into a tale of three journeys: Tamsen's, our family's tracking Tamsen, and my own trying to balance work and love. Another chance remark--made at the Sesquicentennial I didn't want to go to--had led me to Tamsen's seventeen extant letters, which are included in the memoir.

It's known that Tamsen kept a journal but it was never found. All of a sudden, after so many starts, stops, and side trips, I felt I had Tamsen's voice, and the novel, Impatient with Desire(Voice/Hyperion, 2010), is her lost journal imagined--particularly during the four months she was trapped in the Sierra Nevadas with her dying husband and five starving daughters.

I believe that our lives are shaped by genes, environment, experience, desire, and fluke. When you're young and flailing about and hungry for guidance, a sentence in a book or a conversation can seem so critically important, so meant for you, you copy it down and tape it on your wall, though you know you'll never forget it. A part of you is wide open at that moment and these words enter. Once, a man stopped me on a stair and said that most people eat each other to survive and I would write a book that shows a different way. Another person--or I at a different time--might have laughed or thought William Lederer's dream simply curious, but I gave his words tremendous significance and, like Robert Frost's diverging roads, that made all the difference.


Donner Party