September 08, 2020

Allan Wolf

The questions hunger asks
Interview by
Author Allan Wolf discusses the unique narrator of his new novel in verse, The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep, shares some of the unexpected ways he researched the ill-fated Donner Party and explains why cannibalism wasn't the hardest part of the book to write.
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In his new novel in verse, critically acclaimed author Allan Wolf revisits a grisly chapter of westward expansion with a fresh and thought-provoking look at the doomed travelers of the Donner Party, a group of 89 pioneers who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada and infamously resorted to eating their dead to survive. We spoke to Wolf about the unique narrator of The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep, some of the unexpected ways he researched the book and why cannibalism wasn't the hardest part of the book to write.


Tell us about the choice you made to have Hunger play the role of the book’s Greek chorus. Did you consider other emotions or ideas for the role Hunger occupies? Was the choice inspired by any other works of art or literature?
As I recall, I had “cast” Hunger for the part from the very beginning. Sometimes an idea just resonates. Hunger, as you shrewdly note, is a de facto Greek chorus, in that Hunger adds narrative glue to the varied voices of the other characters. Hunger gives the reader context, much as a sports commentator does, or like a knowledgeable docent escorting you through a historic home.

My choice of Hunger was not inspired by any one work but many. I’m a huge fan of allegory, from 15th-century morality plays to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. But I suspect I was also inspired by mythology. There’s a god or goddess of just about everything, from Limos (Hunger) to Lethe (Forgetfulness). Life, Death, Love, Lust, Hope, Hunger, Good and Evil—capitalize these words, and they take on a sentient presence, maybe even flesh and bone. They become incarnations of the incarnate.

I was definitely encouraged by Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death. Zusak’s Death and my Hunger share a common impotence. Neither is the engine of the story’s action. They are primarily passive narrative devices who relate the facts and add a bit of historically informed commentary. The human subjects of the stories must still make their own choices. Otherwise there would be no tension.

The majority of the book's scenes have a singular narrator, but a few take the form of conversations. Why? How did you decide which scenes would take this form?
Conversations are compelling because they aren’t constrained by the author’s narrative gobbledygook. The reader stops reading and just listens. Maybe there are two opposing groups facing off in an argument. Or maybe two loved ones, separated by physical distance, can carry on a conversation of the heart. Or maybe it’s a single character having a “conversation” with God. How do I decide when a conversation is in order? Instinct maybe. During a long story, you need a little o’ this and a little o’ that.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep.


Of all the animals in the group, Buck and Bright, two of the oxen, are the only ones who have voices. Why them?
Buck and Bright (generic oxen names—think Fido and Spot) are the symbolic voice of the thousands of working animals that made westward expansion possible. The sturdy oxen were the engines that made wagon travel possible. They were beasts of burden. At home, they helped us plow our fields. On the road, they got us where we were going. And as an added bonus, they were “rations on the hoof,” meaning that, in a pinch, we could eat them.

Oxen typically work in pairs, side by side, connected by a wooden yoke. So it easily followed to treat them as a duet. I call this two-voice character a “pair-acter.” (Think Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Fred and George Weasley, Adam and Eve). Careful readers might note my comparison of Buck and Bright to the book’s other pair-acter, Salvador and Luis, the two Miwok guides who, in the end, are treated as “rations on the hoof” themselves.

Was there one loss or death that was especially difficult for you to write?
Oh, yes. The murder of Luis and Salvador was as difficult to depict as it was necessary. It was upsetting on a personal level, of course, because I had come to love them. But well beyond my personal feelings, their violent murders are a very real taste of the enslavement and genocide systematically inflicted upon all native inhabitants of the American continent. The callous injustice of these white pioneers, who murdered the very men who had come to rescue them, offends me to my core. No matter how you rationalize this double murder, in the end it was a vile act of blatant white supremacy.

Which brings me to my second difficulty. How can I, as a white man, depict these two Miwok men at all, without stealing their humanity? Is it even possible to tell their story without usurping it? I did not want Luis and Salvador to be superficial caricatures, so I tried to give them emotional depth. Yet that sort of intimate depiction required that I give voice to someone outside of my culture. Writers of historical fiction must walk this dialectic balance beam.

"How do I include a character’s opinion if I find it abhorrent? And how can I expose my young readers to these abhorrent ideals and attitudes without endorsing or glorifying them?"

I felt it was vital to include the voices of Luis and Salvador because the white voices of the Donner Party story have so often been prominent—both because of historic racism and because of an imbalance in written materials (stemming from that racism). Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America should be required reading for all, especially in light of the present-day Black Lives Matter movement and discussions of reparations.

In popular culture, the story of the Donner Party is a story of cannibalism. To survive, they chose to eat their own dead. Repulsive perhaps, but understandable. But once these white pioneers chose to murder Luis and Salvador (as well as an unnamed Washoe boy, shot in the back near Truckee Meadows) in order to survive, the Donner Party story became a metaphor for the cannibalism of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The Indigenous people who had been inhabiting the land for thousands of years were treated as an obstacle to be removed or a resource to be exploited and devoured.

As you wrote, how did you balance the characters’ beliefs and attitudes about westward expansion and Manifest Destiny with our contemporary perspectives on these events and ideas?
Historical truth emerges through the inclusion of many points of view. Until all points of view have been given the honor of inclusion, you cannot know the full truth. But as an author of historical fiction, how do I include a character’s opinion if I find it abhorrent? And how can I expose my young readers to these abhorrent ideals and attitudes without endorsing or glorifying them?

For starters, I can speak my mind and counter repugnant opinions through the words and deeds of my characters. And I can be mindful of my language and depictions, listening with care to flag my own microaggressions and prejudices. I have also included extensive backmatter, to add more historical facts, context and nuance. For example, I’ve included a segment titled “Native Americans and the Donner Party.” I’ve also included a biography of Luis and Salvador that shines a light on the abusive, coercive and exploitative environment in and around Sutter’s Fort in 1846. Throughout the novel, as well as in my short biography of him, I’ve tried to depict John Sutter as the despot and slaver that he certainly was in real life.

I imagine that researching certain aspects of this book were quite challenging, both logistically and emotionally. How did the historical research process compare to the work you’ve done for other historical books (for example, on the Titanic disaster for The Watch That Ends the Night, or the Lewis and Clark expedition for New Found Land)? What kinds of nonhistorical research did you do to be able to tell this story?
As I mentioned, Andrés Reséndez’s book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America helped me to see the story of the Donner Party in the greater context of Native American exploitation. And the mind-blowing book Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion by Robert Morgan is a wonderfully exhaustive look at the ins and outs of how the West was really won.

"To my way of thinking, empathy is the key to compassion. And compassion changes a person. Imagine if we all had that sort of connectedness to history and humanity."

But the nonhistorical research for Three Graves Deep was also fascinating. During winter months, I forced myself to go coatless to better experience the cold. I built a lot of campfires. I read about the physical effects of hunger and starvation. I interviewed a man about his experience of near self-starvation. I researched many facets of cannibalism. And I had to get up to speed on the sacraments, wafers and wine.

To date, The Watch That Ends the Night was my most difficult book to research because I began that project knowing nothing about the Titanic disaster or the Edwardian era or anything nautical. Three Graves Deep took much less time to research. There was simply less material to consider. Plus I had an enormous head start due to my research for New Found Land (about Lewis and Clark), Zane’s Trace (about the Ohio frontier wars) and another novel (never published) about the Mormon Battalion and the Mexican-American War.

At one point, Hunger asks, “What separates the survivors from the quitters?” How would you answer Hunger’s question?
Hunger poses many questions that have no pat answers. I’m not even sure which one, survivor or quitter, I am myself. Sometimes even quitters survive. Sometimes we receive clarity only after we give up. Consider those pioneers who did not quit yet perished anyway. Consider the ones who did quit and yet survived. Whether they survive or perish, it is the people with hope who usually hold the advantage, even in death. So maybe Hope is the thing that separates the survivors from the quitters.

When the time comes for the members of the party to consider eating the dead, Hunger implores readers, “Do not judge them.” When did you know Hunger was going to make this request of readers? Do you feel you were able to accomplish this as you wrote—not judging these characters, who, after all, were real people?
From the very beginning, I knew that Hunger would make this (impossible) request. Hunger is asking readers not to pass judgment before considering what they might do if given the same hard choice. Since my characters were, as you say, real people, I have to judge them to some extent. But Hunger is a trickster. Whenever Hunger asks a question, you can pretty much guarantee the search for an answer will lead you in circles.

In your author’s note, you urge readers who “cannot sympathize” with the members of the Donner Party to “try to empathize” with them. What do you hope readers who are able to empathize will gain from doing so?
Compared to sympathy, empathy requires more direct connection and active engagement. I want readers to imagine themselves in the shoes of my characters, experiencing all the heroism, cowardice, even villainy. I want my readers to discover common connections. To my way of thinking, empathy is the key to compassion. And compassion changes a person. Imagine if we all had that sort of connectedness to history and humanity. Imagine transforming a world of “us and them” into a world of just “us.” See what I did there?

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