Sometimes I think my life is hard. This tends to happen more often when I’m coming off a series of events like the recent combination of catching up at work from all the missed snow days, a business trip, back-t0-back weekends spent in graduate classes, and sending a child to China for three weeks.
Searching For Tamsen Donner is a book that makes me reconsider that characterization. After all, when I was “snowed in” it involved a lot of reading while snuggled up in a cozy blanket and the cooking a crock pot meals for my family to eat when they took a break from sledding. At no time did I have to consider how to feed my family, shelter them, or just keep them alive.
And, yes, I’ll go ahead and mention it. I never had to figure out if I was going to eat one of my fellow travellers or if I was at risk of being eaten myself. So, really, life isn’t hard at all.
Gabrielle Burton weaves the story of the Donner Party’s ill-fated quest for California into her own family’s journey over one hundred years later when she, her husband, and their five daughters set out to retrace the Donner Party’s route. Her interest in Tamsen Donner, wife of the group’s leader George, goes further than just morbid curiosity. Burton sees Tamsen as battling some of the same questions that face her as a woman. How can she be sure her voice is heard? How does a mother balance her own needs and wants with that of her family? Is there more to life somewhere over the next seemingly insurmountable mountain?
Burton, the product of a traditional Catholic upbringing, shares her angst over pursuing a writing career in the 1970s while simultaneously raising five children. She takes her girls along with her to women’s rights and anti-war demonstrations and attends consciousness raising sessions whose success she rates according to how many of the group members fight with their husbands upon returning home.
Burton’s second wave feminist experiences seem foreign to me in many ways, but her struggles to balance work and family ring true. She describes the conflict between her career as writer and her duty as mother,
The writer had to explore, act on impulse, take risks, plunge to the core of things; the mother had to constantly weigh and measure, watch out, pull back.
When Burton decides to scrap a solo trip out West–via motorcycle, no less–in favor of a cross-country family trip by way of the family station wagon, she combines her dual identities of writer and mother. The goal? A novel with parallel plots involving the Donner Party and, who else, a mother in the 1970s.
That novel never saw print. But the resulting memoir provides plenty of interesting reading, especially for anyone whose ever wanted more but hasn’t quite known where to find it.