AFTER TWO BOOKS of lyric poems, Ruth Whitman, a well-known New England poet, grew tired of the "subjective I." The Passion of Lizzie Borden was Whitman's first poem written from inside another woman. Tamsen Donner; a woman's journey is her second; and a third long poem from the point of view of a woman in the resistance during the Holocaust is underway.
Ruth Whitman, intermingling poetry and prose, tells Tamsen Donner's personal story, and creates a secular epic at the same time. The Donner party strikes out for California in 1846 for "fun" and meets tragedy. The end is not sudden, but is the slow unloading of the baggage of the old life. "George lifts my heavy crate of Shakespeare... and hides it in a hill of salt," and the old identity.
The first section of the book, "Prairie," is full of comparisons of East and West, of the old life with the new, of landscapes: "Where are the seagulls?" While Tamsen is not reluctant to move, she notes strange details in a larger context: "We change in relation to the land. We become smaller."
The second two sections of the book record the changes, spiritual and material, that Tamsen undergoes. While the trip begins as a metaphoric uniting of the continent, comparable to Tamsen's second marriage to George Donner--"and I who started/a thousand miles before/feel in my flesh/the stretch of the land/as we give it birth"--it unfolds as a series of losses, of partings. "Now hesitant among the mountains/we pass across the invisible boundary/that divides self from self..." The last and most painful parting for Tamsen, is her husband's death. She therefore chooses to die in the mountains, with him and their broken wagon, under 20 feet of snow, rather than join her daughters who ultimately reach California. "How can I part with my sustaining love... how can I learn sleep/without his shoulder to bed down my griefs?"
Some of the best poetry appears in the middle section of the book, "Desert." It is here that Tamsen's willingness begins to bitter. The impossibility of the odds finds expression in paradox: "we age in the youngest canyon; we fumble through/the same impassable passage." Hope finds outlet in dreams, signs and visions: a rainstorm on the ocean; a mirage of fellow travelers. Rock formations and vegetation come to stand for futility: "the children chase [Tumbleweed]/as though they were chasing/hoops or balls/the rootless chasing the rootless."
Tamsen Donner's thoughts unfold subtly, over the thousands of miles that she journeys. All of the particulars of her honest, direct entries seem to elevate her to a principle. As Ruth Whitman has intended: "I thought of the journey in its literal sense as a typical American sequence, moving from innocence to disaster; and as a woman's history, moving from dependence to courageous selfhood." (quoted from Radcliffe Quarterly).
Whitman became interested in pioneer life through a larger interest in mortality and survival. She chose Tamsen Donner partly because of their similarities: both poets, teachers and married more than once. Through reading numerous accounts of the Donner party trip, and by traveling the route herself, Whitman hoped to get inside her persona.
SHE HAS SUCCEEDED. Tamsen Donner is both the exact detailing of one woman's movement toward death and rebirth, and a proud, universal protest against decay, as represented by George Donner's "festering wound." Without ever descending to self-pity Tamsen asks: "Must we devour ourselves/in order to survive?" She replies: "I cannot see/how I could bear to live/by eating my friend's death."
Tamsen realizes that "[the West] is not a fixed but a floating line" (from the front of the book), and that "If my boundry stops here/I have daughters to draw new maps on the world...they will speak my words..."