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DAVE DAVIES, host:

The story of the ill-fated Donner Party continues to fascinate us because it's the American Westward Ho nightmare writ large. But for writer Gabrielle Burton, other lessons generated by the expedition take precedence over the familiar lurid accounts of cannibalism.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a rave review for Burton's two new books about the Donner Party.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Summer gives me the chance to go off-road in my reading, to investigate books by lesser-known authors that have piqued my curiosity. Lots of times these detours turn into dead ends, but once in a while the road less traveled leads to the literary equivalent of El Dorado the lost city of gold. That's where I've been happily ensconced for the past week or so, thanks to Gabrielle Burton.

Burton is a writer closing in on 70 whose near lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party has produced two recent books: one a very good novel, the other an extraordinary must-read memoir.

The known facts of Tamsen Donner's life are these: She was born in 1801 in Massachusetts. And, as a young woman, traveled by herself to teaching posts in Maine and North Carolina. After the death of her first husband and son, Tamsen went on to marry George Donner, an older widower. In the spring of 1846, when Tamsen was 44, she set off with George, their five daughters, age 13 to three, and some 80 other men, women and children on the California-Oregon Trail, bound for San Francisco Bay.

As everybody knows, the Donner Party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada by freak early snows and resorted to cannibalism to survive. When rescuers arrived, Tamsen sent off her daughters, while she made the fatal decision to stay behind with her dying husband. Tamsen's body and the journal she kept throughout the trip were never found. According to eyewitnesses, the three littlest Donner girls spent weeks at Sutter's Fort in present-day Sacramento, their eyes on the mountains, crying: If mother would only come.

Gabrielle Burton is also the mother of five daughters. She'd been drawn to Tamsen Donner not just because of that coincidence, but also because, she says, Tamsen always seemed restless, seemed to want more. As an overwhelmed young mother in the late-1960s, Burton knew firsthand about the illicit desire for more.

One of the things she desired was to become a writer, and on and off over the decades, Burton worked on a novel about Tamsen Donner. All those years of research and meditation have given the novel Burton has finally published a sense of authority. Its title, "Impatient with Desire," is taken from a phrase in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters. The novel is imagined as Tamsen's lost journal. And, in particular, the sections that depict Tamsen and the dying George alone in the vast vacancy of the deserted campsite are haunting.

It's Gabrielle Burton's own fault, however, that I'm not spending more time talking about her fine novel, because last year she published an unusual memoir called "Searching for Tamsen Donner." You'll probably have to search a bit yourself for this book, since it was put out by The University of Nebraska Press as part of their "American Lives" series. But, it is so worth the effort.

Burton writes about a shoestring-budget trip she took in 1977, along with her husband and five daughters, all crammed into the family station wagon. Already deep into Donner research, Burton wanted to retrace the party's route from Illinois to California.

Originally, Burton, newly fired up by the women's liberation movement, had planned to make the pilgrimage alone, on a cherry-red motorcycle. But, being a small woman, she couldn't control the heavy bike. And so begins a feminist family-on-the-road saga, the likes of which I've never read before.

The Burton family stops at lonely pioneer graves off highways and swims in the Great Salt Lake, and all the while, fledgling writer Gabrielle Burton is making daily calculations about how to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife and mother, without - like Tamsen Donner - discovering all too late that her duty had cost her her life.

As Burton wisely says, talking about emotional cannibalism: The nicest husbands and children will eat you up alive if you offer yourself on the plate, and they'll ask for seconds.

Both Madonna of the Trail, Tamsen Donner, and feminist mother, Gabrielle Burton, turned out to be pioneers, carving new roads for women to travel. Both their stories are absolutely unforgettable.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed two books by Gabrielle Burton: "Searching for Tamsen Donner" and "Impatient with Desire." To see Maureen's top crime picks for summer, go to the summer book section of npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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