THE BLOG
05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Heroic Mothers: Tamsen Donner, Gabrielle Burton and Jodi Picoult's Latest

Three very different portraits of motherhood are presented in Jodi Picoult's House Rules and Gabrielle Burton's Impatient with Desire and Searching for Tamsen Donner; what all three books have in common is a vibrant portrayal of mother as hero. House Rules is tidily-built with a fast plot, rich characters both good and evil, and a conclusion that will make the legions of Picoult's mom-fans feel good about themselves (especially when the mom in the book gets the hot younger guy). Impatient with Desire and Searching for Tamsen Donner reach further and do more: Burton leads her readers to heights of awe, admiration, and inspiration through her fictional but well-researched account of Tamsen Donner's fateful journey west and her memoir of taking her own daughters on the same journey, trying to find both the woman who was Tamsen Donner and herself.

In Jodi Picoult's House Rules, Emma Hunt has a child with Asperger's syndrome. A single mom, she alone bears the load of keeping Jacob's life on an even and predictable keel, which is essential to his well-being. When Jacob is accused of a violent crime and forced into the criminal justice system, the load becomes even heavier and Emma must work even harder to save her son, hold onto her own sanity, and keep her other son from falling off the map. Picoult does a good job presenting the facts and fictions about autism and illustrating the barriers to understanding autism that make care of autistic children a full-time job for their parents.

Gabrielle Burton's Impatient with Desire is a beautifully written fictional account of the Donner party's epic journey of 1846. It is a journey whose tragic and gruesome finale is familiar to most Americans. Burton uses years of solid research and a disciplined imagination to fill in the less sensational but still moving details of the trip that began in Illinois and ended in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner, brave, independent, kind, and determined to make her way west both for the adventure of it all and for the advantages she was sure awaited her family in California. The party of George Donner, Tamsen, their five children, and eighty other pioneers traveled by wagon going west across miles of meadows, mountains, and deserts. Tamsen's journal entries and letters to her sister back east, imagined by Burton, describe the journey west in all its hardships and its pleasures. Although only two of Tamsen's letters while on the trail still exist and her journal was never recovered, Burton uses the facts she does have to evoke the heart and soul of Tamsen, and to record her motivations in beginning the trip, her delights in the journey, and her heroism in the snows of Truckee Meadows. Tamsen kept her five children alive and sane through a regimen of hygiene, chores, and meals (only at the very end was human meat prepared and then it was only for the youngest of the group). In addition to taking care of their bodily needs as best she could, Tamsen inspired them -- and now, us -- with her own 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.

Searching for Tamsen Donner is Burton's riveting memoir of the trip she took one summer tracking both the trail of the Donner party across the United States and the personal story of Tamsen Donner. Burton's journey took her to Newburyport Massachusetts, where Tamsen was born, south to North Carolina where she taught school, married, had two children, and then lost all three; and north to Springfield, Illinois where Tamsen met George Donner and from where they began their westward migration. Burton followed the old Oregon-California Trail up to the Truckee Meadows, where she slept out beneath the tree then believed to be the tree against which the Donners built their winter shelter over a century earlier. Burton undertook the massive cross country trip with her husband and five children and her details of life on the road interspersed with facts and questions about the Donner party and memories from Burton's own life as a writer, mother, and feminist combine to make this an inspiring memoir of fully-engaged motherhood, a riveting history of self-discovery, and a further homage to the spirit and the legacy of Tamsen Donner.