I approached Richard Rhodes' The Ungodly: A Novel of the Donner Party (1972) with some trepidation, as the skills that make a good narrative historian do not necessarily translate into the skills that make a good novelist. (Exhibit A: Simon Schama's attempt at fiction in Dead Certainties.) In fact, The Ungodly turned out to be an absorbingly grotesque--sometimes downright gruesome--rewriting of some very popular cliches about pioneer spirit, community in the face of adversity, and the romance of the settler experience.
Rhodes structures the novel as a trip log or diary, subdivided into five sections that move from "The Trail" to "Afterwards"; instead of chapters, each section is organized according to the calendar. While the narrative is thus perfectly linear, as the characters move day-by-day from April 15, 1846 to April 22, 1847 (the "Afterwards" section is really a partially-undated epilogue), this linearity does not add up to progress in our usual sense of plot development. In fact, the characters spend most of the novel quite literally not making progress, either geographically or psychologically, and both calendar time and nature qualify as the novel's deadliest "villains." Moreover, the log isn't written by anyone in the novel, although it incorporates actual texts written by Donner party members like Patrick Breen. At times, the text appears to be the product of a kind of group mind, an effect heightened by Rhodes' use of sparse, sometimes fragmentary prose with virtually no internal punctuation, occasionally salted with dialect or German ("He's coming after me oh Jesus looket him come got to get this powder poured oh Jesus" ). At other times, we see the omniscient narrator more obviously at work, as when the action abruptly shifts from one space to another without any concessions to the reader; the narrator can move, even if the characters can't. But however we take the log, the narrative voice often maintains a near-Olympian detachment that reinforces the characters' helplessness and isolation.
As one might expect, a novel about the Donner Party is a novel about suffering--and, of course, cannibalism (which, after all, is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone says "Donner Party"). The Ungodly, however, does not make suffering either redemptive or transformative; the character who seems to undergo the greatest change, the German immigrant Lewis Keseberg, only changes in the direction of temporary insanity. Thus, Peggy Breen is pointedly "her old self again" (338) once rescued--any change in personality is a temporary deviation, not an organic development. Once food becomes scarce, the Party collapses as a community: families refuse to feed non-members, extract extravagant payments for food, and sometimes steal from each other. The novel's hero, Will Eddy, stands out not because of his intelligence or charisma, but because he determines that "he would save them or die trying..." (197). Under these horrible circumstances, unselfishness becomes an astonishing act of virtue. There is no essential reward for heroism, though; Tamsen Donner, one of the strongest figures in the novel, survives almost everything only to be raped and murdered by Keseberg.
The monstrous Keseberg, whose voice dominates the novel's fourth section, is a one-man parody of both community and the will to live--both celebrated elsewhere (if somewhat ambivalently) in the text. Keseberg anoints himself "King of the Forgotten Dead" (348), and imagines himself preserving the identities of the dead settlers through cannibalism. Eating corpses, he imagines, leaves a "mark" that will result in suffering first equal to Christ's (347), then to Faust's (348); indeed, he fantasizes that "Almighty God had singled him out to show how much misery a man can bear" (349). As part of these hubristic fantasies, in which he veers between damnation and godhood, his meals become a reverse communion, constructing a "community" of sorts by incorporating the dead into his own body. A violent, brutal man, Keseberg murders Tamsen Donner because she plans to move on after her husband's death (356); eating her preserves the growing community within himself, "carried" "as a woman carries a child" (356). Here we have the inverse of Will Eddy's heroism, in the form of something nearly vampiric.