Searching for Tamsen Donner

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Searching for Tamsen Donner follows Burton’s own journey in 1977 retracing the Donner Trail of 1846 with her five daughters and husband.  Alongside the Donner Party history with an emphasis on Tamsen Donner, Burton’s ‘own journey explores the struggle between being a mother and a working writer, between love and passion, between family and adventure — and the search to have both.

An added bonus: Contains the 17 extant letters of Tamsen Donner, collected and published in one place for the first time, some of them seen by few outside Tamsen’s descendants.


Maureen Corrigan’s Favorite Books Of 2010

“Searching for Tamsen Donner is audaciously ambitious and utterly original…This memoir combines — successfully! — domestic, historic, and mystical concerns that bind together our brave but heartbreakingly fragile nation. It’s just a terrific read.”— Carolyn See, author of Making a Literary Life

“Every great biography requires diligent research, patient investigation, historical accuracy and informed guesses. Searching for Tamsen Donner provides all that and more… An original and insightful rendering of a familiar legend, I absolutely loved it.” — Mary Kay Blakely, author of Wake Me When It’s Over

“Burton’s retelling of the Tamsen Donner story is like no other, because she weaves Tamsen’s story with her own story… In Searching for Tamsen Donner, Burton also is searching for the kind of example she wants to set for her own daughters on what it means to be an independent woman in the modern world, especially when that ‘independence’ does not exclude family, children, and responsibility and care for others. Both of these stories are amazing on so many different levels; they are terrific reads, imbued with rich details and lively narrative and they also provide a more complex picture of western expansion and the price that women, in particular, paid.” — How to Have a Roadtrip Without Leaving the Couch by Kate Flaherty (U of N Blog)

“In Searching for Tamsen Donner, novelist and screenwriter Gabrielle Burton has crafted a stirring and fascinating blend of feminist memoir and pioneer history…with the careful precision of the scholar and the fiction writer’s eye for detail. Though separated by 131 years, the parallel journeys of the Donners and the Burtons are quintessentially American. A wonderful book in the tradition of Travels with Charley. Part political and sociological observation, part history, and part autobiography, Searching for Tamsen Donner is a journey well worth taking.” — Gary Earl Ross, playwright

“This witty, compelling memoir brings the reader along as the Burton family retraces the path the Donner Party took across the continent in 1846… We see contemporary America through her very observant eye, which is sometimes critical but always thoughtful and respectful. This is a terrific book and deserves a wide audience.” — Elaine Ford, author of The Playhouse

“Her enthusiasm is genuine, her prose often lyrical…Burton introduces us to those who serve as caretakers of historical memory and highlights the changes modernity brings to hidden historical sites. … Perhaps her book’s greatest strength is its ability to capture the essence of every woman’s search for self-fulfillment. Through the persona of Tamsen Donner, Burton reaffirms how historical characters continue to resonate in our minds today.” — Diane Bush, Utah State University, Logan, PROJECT MUSE, WESTERN AMERICAN LITERATURE

“The author’s unique approach to the subject will give fans of Donner Party history a new and refreshing perspective on the story.” — Off the Shelf, Summer/Fall 2009, Truckee, CA

“The form she adopts in this book is neither straightforward biography nor personal memoir, but a skillful interpolation of the two… She succeeds where other historians and biographers have failed in uncovering and publishing here all 17 of Donner’s known letters from the journey. Burton’s curiosity to speculate and piece together clues as to circumstances surrounding Tamsen’s fate…drives the narrative forward as if Burton’s own perceived vulnerabilities somehow implicate her in the tragedy. It’s the book’s final uncoupling of these two parallel lives that is Tamsen Donner’s legacy to pioneering woman and Burton’s literary triumph.” — R. D. Pohl, BUFFALO NEWS

“An unusual variant of the “on the road” idea… History lesson, memoir and intimate family portrait all at once, Searching for Tamsen Donner simultaneously re-creates the 1840s and the 1970s, east to west. Burton certainly knows her subject. It’s hard not to share in her single-minded exhilaration.” — William Deverel, LOS ANGELES TIMES

“A thoughtful and engaging blend of history and memoir that inspires the reader to delve further into the Donner party’s fate, while at the same time enjoying Burton’s struggle to be both a full-time mother and successful writer.” — Deborah Donovan, BOOK LIST

“Gabrielle weaves Tamsen’s story into her own, and a fine tale it is. As a bonus, she publishes all of Tamzene’s known letters at the end.” — Kristin Johnson, Donner Blog

“Her story is an inspiration to all women seeking to balance personal ambitions, adventure, and family. Arriving just in time for summer road trip planning, Searching for Tamsen Donner is a moving exploration of a legendary American woman through the eyes of a modern heroine.” — Barbara Smith, FEMINIST REVIEW

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