Children's Literature Reviews for Teaching History

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Impatient with Desire

Title: Impatient with Desire   
Author: Gabrielle Burton
Category: Historical Fiction

Topic: The Donner Party, Westward Expansion
Grade Level: Upper high school (11th or 12th grade) and college
Students: Mostly strong readers with just a few struggling or reluctant readers 
Rating by: Andrew J. Peters from New York
(Andrew's extended review of this book is available at his website:

Historically Accurate?
(4) Yes and also includes historical notes, primary sources, etc.
(3) Yes
(2) A few inaccurate or misleading portrayals
(1) Not a bit 

An Engaging Story?
(4) Almost all students will beg to keep reading
(3) Most students will get caught up in the story
(2) Some students will read ahead by mistake
(1) Students will groan when the book is mentioned 

Prompts Discussion?
(4) Students will still be talking about it in the hallway
(3) Will prompt discussion about major issues in the past as well as today
(2) Will prompt discussion about the characters and the events in the book
(1) Will not prompt discussion 

(4) Everyone - even the most reluctant readers – can get on board
(3) Can be used for a whole class read
(2) Can only be used with a small high-powered reading group
(1) Recommend only to students that love reading 

Age Appropriate Content? 
_X__Too mature
____Just right 
____Too simplistic

Andrew J. Peters' Review:  
In the spring of 1846, George Donner led his family and eighty pioneers on a trail of opportunity from Illinois to California.  They made it as far as the Sierra Nevada mountains but were trapped by a snow storm.  The mission turned desperate, and a horrifying legend was born.

Gabrielle Burton's IMPATIENT WITH DESIRE is an intimate re-telling of the journey of the ill-fated Donner Party.  The story is told primarily through the letters and journal entries of Tamsen Donner, a schoolteacher and wife to George Donner, during the time they awaited rescue.

Burton is clear in labeling her work as a fictional account.  But it is based on nearly forty years of her research, a vigorous sideline of the author, which included a family vacation with her husband and five daughters to retrace the steps of the Donner trail.

Burton, who has garnered praise for her portraits of women (her debut novel Heartbreak Hotel) and contributed extensively to feminist discourse over the past four decades, casts Tamsen Donner as a compelling heroine.  Tamsen is self-assured, well-educated, and an independent thinker.  She prefers collecting botanical specimens for her students to baking pies, she asks her pastor to remove the words "to obey" in her marriage vows, and she has clever observations on gender inequality.  

Tamsen was the daughter of a Sea Captain, who encouraged her dream of traveling, at a time when women were expected to stay close to the home.  She was heartbroken by the death of her first husband and one of her sons, but she ventured beyond a life of widowhood to find happiness in a second marriage.  She was fiercely devoted to the promotion of her daughters, accepting the brand of unspeakable inhumanity so that they might survive.  Living under the authority of men, she emerges as much (or more so) as the leader who rallied her counterparts to take the chance to better their lives, and she stewarded morale and comforted them when grief and fear left them broken

As such, the book will provoke good classroom discussions about the status of women and men in the 1800's (and beyond), and it provides a multi-layered heroine for young readers—female and male—to get behind.  

The narrative never strays from Tamsen's point of view, but she is a circumspect and reliable storyteller.  While stranded with her family at a makeshift camp, she records the daily life and the history, which gives readers a vivid picture of pioneer life.  Like The Diary of Anne Frank, there are heavy themes here—starvation, many deaths, and of course the inevitable cannibalism—and they are explored frankly, realistically, but with a great deal of humanity.  The story poses the question:  what would you do to survive?—a curious, provocative topic for young readers, I think.  The decisions made by different party members can be debated as well as points of view on the story:  is it a cautionary tale about the price of ambition?  or is it a story about human resilience in the face of desperate circumstances?  

In terms of historical accuracy, there are Author's Notes at the end that clarify what is drawn from historical records, and what came from the author's imagination.  Largely, it's a story that seeks to be as authentic as possible.  The principal liberties are taken to bring to life Tamsen Donner, whose journal was never found.  Ms. Burton portrays Tamsen as an early women's liberationist of her time, in the mold of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, so the book would work well as a supplement to studies of the early women's movement as well.

I think the book is appropriate and useful for upper high school grades and college.            


Link to reviews on Amazon 
Link to review from NPR's Fresh Air
Link to the website of the author: Gabrielle Burton 
Buy this book from your local bookstore via Indie Bound

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