Allan Wolf explores the Donner Party in his latest novel-in-verse

SALT OF THE EARTH: Asheville-based author Allan Wolf says he's drawn to write about real-life tragedies because "they star normal people." Author photo by Charley Akers

Allan Wolf loves a good tragedy. After chronicling passengers on the Titanic in The Watch That Ends the Night and the hardships of the Lewis and Clark expedition in New Found Land, the Asheville-based author turns his attention to the Donner Party in The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep.

“Disasters are fascinating,” Wolf says. “You know what’s going to happen, and you know it’s going to be bad, but the characters don’t. And so, anything they do is laced with irony and foreboding and foreshadowing, and it’s obvious to you but not to them. I kind of like that. It may be cheap, but I kind of dig it.”

Staying busy during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which he describes his state of mind as being on “a roller coaster ride down a rabbit hole,” Wolf spoke with Xpress about his newest book (published on Sept. 8), which charts the tale of the ill-fated pioneers who found themselves snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47.

On choosing his latest subject:
A lot of times, I’m looking for an event in history that includes multiple people, multiple generations, multiple genders, multiple everything — many voices from different classes and different parts of the world or whatever. And if I can find something that happened in history that we think we know about — it’s sort of on our radar but we don’t really know what happened — that, to me, is worth looking at.

On separating fact from legend:
As a rule, the more recent things that are written about something in history are usually the most accurate. But a lot of times, the things that are more recent have just been repeating something that’s wrong over the course of many years, and it becomes fact, but you can go backwards and find out exactly where the myths arose. What happened in history is like a big, tangled knot … and if you think about all those strings, those are the different people telling their version of the story. And what you have to do is go through and untangle that knot and separate out every strand and follow that strand back to the source.

On going “method” in his pre-writing investigations:
I did some ancillary research, too, into starvation — the stages of starvation — which is fascinating. And also into cannibalism, of course. I interviewed some people who had actually felt what it was like to begin to starve to death. And I spent a lot of time in the cold. I tried to get through the winters without a coat, just so I could kind of feel miserable.

On choosing Hunger as the book’s narrator:

You always kind of audition people. You’re like the movie producer — you don’t even have a script sometimes. You know you want to do a movie about X, Y, Z, and you sort of have a concept of what the thing will look like and what the style will be. And I knew that because this is the Donner Party and because the thing that is dangling in front of people’s minds is cannibalism, that has a sort of dark and grisly and fascinating, “you can’t turn away from the train wreck/carnage” kind of fascination that we have as humans. Because of that darkness, it seemed to me that some sort of a dark and creepy, foreboding character like … you know, Charon, the boatman of the River Styx [should narrate]. Death has been a narrator in many different books over the course of time, and Hunger just seemed to pop out.

Hunger doesn’t really have a body, though Hunger is definitely a thing that we all can relate to. Hunger has been with us forever, and there’s a timelessness to this entity, just like if I have the iceberg talk [in The Watch That Ends the Night], the iceberg is made of 10,000-year-old ice. The iceberg’s been around and seen a lot, and so has Hunger. And so I can use Hunger to talk about, “Well, here are the different stages of starvation,” and it makes sense that Hunger would know that because he’s Hunger, but also he can tell you what happens in the future, if he wants. He can do and say anything. He can talk about what happened on the other side of the world. He can talk about what happened to Jesus, if he wants to. That’s the kind of narrator I like. You can really make some comments.

Why a novel about the Donner Party is “the perfect thing to read during the pandemic”:
[The characters are] full of courage and very resourceful, and they’re more skilled than we are today. They could do so many more things. But they’re just normal people, and I think we can all relate to them, especially when they’re supposed to be taking care of their children and they can’t. How do you keep your humanity in a situation like that? So I guess this book, like COVID, it’s just a bunch of average, normal people who have something thrust upon them. And in one way, we’ve walked into it voluntarily, but at the same time it’s not the way that we planned it. And, also, nobody wants to die, but so often we really find out what it means to be alive when we’re confronted with death.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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