Discussion Questions

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Click here to download the discussion questions.

My thanks to Kristen Galles, www.BookClubClassics.com

Gabrielle will visit your book club in person if geographically feasible or on Skype.  Email to arrange a book club discussion visit.

The following questions approach the novel from a number of different angles — including how the novel functions as a work of art, how it addresses fundamental questions of humanity, and how it engages the reader.

A good discussion tends to start with our “heads” and end with our “hearts.”  Therefore, you may want to save subjective opinions of taste until after you have discussed the more objective elements of this work.  It is tempting to begin with, “What did everyone think?”  But if a number of people didn’t enjoy the novel, their opinions may derail a discussion of the novel’s merits.

On the other hand, I recommend starting with a few accessible questions and asking every member to respond to ensure that all voices are present and heard from the beginning.   Just a few suggestions — most importantly, enjoy…!

Warm up questions:

  • Gabrielle Burton is the author of I’m Running Away From Home but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street, Heartbreak Hotel, and Searching for Tamsen Donner.  Has anyone read any of Burton’s other books?  If so, how did this novel compare? Was this novel what you expected?  If not, does<em>Impatient with Desire</em> Impatient with Desire encourage you to read other works by Burton?
  • Notice the cover of the novel:

How affected are you by the cover of a novel?  What was the effect of this particular cover image on your first impressions of this novel?

1) What was your previous knowledge of the Donner Party?  How did this affect your experience of Impatient with Desire? What was most surprising to you, based on your previous knowledge?  What was the effect of knowing the ending as you read Tamsen’s journal?

2) Impatient with Desire begins with the following sentence: “Imagine all the roads a woman and a man walk until the reach the road they’ll walk together.” 

What multiple levels of meanings does this sentence have within the context of the novel?  Why is the metaphor of a road an especially evocative first impression for Impatient with Desire?

“In Ohio, and in Illinois, even an outspoken woman like me has her pick of men…I thought I had buried my heart with Tully.” (1)

How does this sentence form our first impressions of Tamsen?

Then, near the end, Tamsen reflects on how her entire life was affected by her temperament:

“My whole life my heart was big with hope and impatient with desire. When anyone ever went anyplace, I always wondered: What will they see? What is there that is not here? What waits for them that I am missing? I cannot bear it if no one knows what has gone on here. What I have seen. What was waiting for me here that I have not missed.” (206)

Why could Tamsen not bear to have her experience unknown?  Do you understand her desire to have her experience, her life, all of it, the good and the bad, be known?  Why do you think Burton chose to write this novel as a journal, from Tamsen’s first person perspective?  Were you sympathetic toward Tamsen or did you judge her decisions?  Did you identify with her? Ultimately, did you admire Tamsen or not?  Why?


3) The concept of “desire” runs throughout the narrative – desire for food, for adventure, for freedom, for respect.  On page 140, Tamsen stated:

“Yet, every time I bid one of our Ohio-bound neighbors farewell, desire leapt in me. All my life, I have wondered about the place I’m not in. You either are that way or you aren’t, and you can’t imagine the opposite state.” (140) 

Do you agree with Tamsen?  Which state do you align with?  Can you understand the other perspective?


4) This novel tackles a myriad of subjects — from marriage to motherhood to adventure to independence to Manifest Destiny to survival.  Which of these topics does the novel cover in an especially unique or compelling manner?  Which topic is least essential to the overall meaning of the novel?  If you were asked to describe this novel in one sentence, what would your synopsis focus on

5) Notice the first few words George speaks to Tamsen, when he finds her in his field with a group of students: “You need permission to be in this field ma’am… I’ll still need to know when you’re here, ma’am. When the corn gets taller, I may have to send in a search party for you.” (1-2)

Notice how Tamsen describes George to her sister: “I find my new husband a kind friend who does all in his power to promote my happiness & I have as fair a prospect for a pleasant old age as anyone.” (2)

How are George’s first words and Tamsen’s note to her sister unfortunately ironic?

6) Were you surprised at the number and ages of children in the party (22 children under the age of 10)?  How might the children have contributed to the events?  Did the presence of the children make you more or less compassionate toward the adults and their actions?  Since all five of the Donner daughters survive, why do you think there still so much mystery surrounding what happened?

7) On page 77-78, Tamsen reflects,

“I’ve lived years on farms, and know incontestably that the strong survive, the weak die off. That is the way of nature, but I used to argue that we can improve on nature, or at least not be as brutal as nature. I don’t have the luxury of theoretical debates anymore, nor am I sentimental as I once was.”

After resorting to cannibalism to keep her children alive, Tamsen thinks: “And now the great violation is done once, twice, and as many more times as needed, and all I feel is deep relief that the children are visibly stronger and an equally deep anger.” (205)

As omnivores, humans are able to eat just about anything, but choose not to for moral and ethical reasons.  Cannibalism is one of our greatest cultural taboos. However, what would YOU do to save your children?  Whom do you think Tamsen was angry at?


8) Burton did extensive research prior to writing this novel and comments on this in her Notes:

Impatient with Desire is a work of fiction about an actual historic event and real people. By definition, it’s a work of imagination, which in some ways suits the subject well, since so few hard facts are known about the Donner Party. The story of the Donner Party may be the best-known, least substantiated, tale of the nineteenth-century American overland emigration. There are few primary sources and countless contradictory secondary sources, which started to appear soon after the event and continue to the present… It is my deep wish that the reader come to see all these people as real, their ordeal, almost buried by morbid jokes, become alive.” (240)

How did you find that reading a work of historical fiction differs from reading a work of non-historical fiction?  In what ways did Burton’s record of Tamsen Donner seem authentic?


9) The events of this story occur in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when death was ever-present and lives were much shorter than today. On page 15, George and Tamsen discuss the motivations of the early settlers:

“George and I have often talked about how the explorers went westward for knowledge or glory, the missionaries for converts, and the mountain men for adventure and fortune, but we of ’46 have thought of ourselves from the beginning as bringing a civilization. We are the first year of the families on the Trail: a responsibility and a privilege that we have borne eagerly, indeed with pride.”

Burton states at the end of her Author’s Note:

“To me, almost all the members of the Donner Party, and the California and Oregon emigrants in general are heroes, even if they didn’t always behave heroically. They had strengths and failings because they were complex humans. Every American is indebted to them for opening up the way before us.” (244)

Did you feel a similar sense of gratitude to these people for their willingness to risk their fragile lives in order to broaden the span of the United States?


10) How did this earlier century differ from our own? What was most surprising or intriguing about this period of time? After reading the book, have you gained a new perspective of the mid-nineteenth century —or did the book affirm your prior views?

11) We learn during the section titled “Hastings Cutoff” that if the women had been able to influence the route with their votes, the party may have never been stranded.  However, Tamsen never blames George for their predicament.  Why not?

12) We learn from reading the dedication of this novel that the author, similar to Tamsen Donner, has five daughters.  How might this commonality have influenced Burton’s decision to write about the Donners?  In her Author’s Notes, Burton asks, “Why are we so drawn to [the Donner Party story]? Because it’s the American dream turned nightmare? Because we wonder what we would have done had we been there?” (244)  Why do you think people have been fascinated by this story for so long? How do you approach this period of history differently now?

13) On page 81, Tamsen writes to her sister, “…I find that, when I revisit the past, it often reveals something quite unexpected – too often some humbling or unpleasant truth that seems clear as day now.”  What does revisiting the Donner tragedy reveal to us as individuals as well as culturally?

14)     What type of reader do you think would enjoy this novel? Would you see a movie made on this novel? Would you read a sequel – for example, a work that focused on the Donner daughters? If this novel were written from a different character’s perspective, who would you choose?

15)     What “life lesson” can be learned from Tamsen’s story?