Itchy Donner doesn't have much going for him. A rashy eleven-year-old growing up fatherless in a dying backwoods Idaho timber town, Itchy is obsessed with the past--specifically, his family's past. Itchy's the great-great-great grandson of Tamsen Donner, the Donner Party's famous matriarch, and Itchy studies his ancestor's history with the relentlessness that only a true nerd can muster. He and his mother Irene live poor but happy in a ramshackle singlewide, and Irene encourages Itchy's interest and pride in his illustrious ancestors. But their predictable lives are forever turned upside-down when the wandering gyppo logger Red Donner--Itchy's blustery, larger-than-life father--blows back into town looking to make amends for his past and put his family back together again ...
They say Itchy Donner was born during a blizzard, on a night much like the long winter nights in 1847 when his starving ancestors shivered in tents and toyed with the idea of eating the people next door.
Of course, Itchy and his mother Irene always corrected the cannibal mis-conception.
“Our ancestors,” Irene would say, her voice cracking with indignation, “were not cannibals. It was the Murphys and the Graves’. And that horrible Keseberg! He was the worst. But the Donners never resorted to such things. They—we—are an honorable family.”
Oddly, Irene wasn’t truly a Donner. Her ex-husband Red claimed the Donner connection, but Irene felt that her kinship—though by marriage—entitled her to both the glory and defense of the famous family. Red vanished a few months before Itchy’s birth and hadn’t been seen since, so over the years Irene made sure that Itchy learned everything there was to know about his illustrious heritage.
“Your great-great-great grandparents were the bravest pioneers, Itchy,” she’d tell him while he cooed and gurgled in his crib. “I think you’re brave just like great-great-great Gramma Tamsen Donner. Do you want me to tell you about great-great-great Gramma Tamsen again?” Itchy, eight months old and far more interested in chewing his toes than learning the family story, burbled in a way that Irene took as a “Yes.”
“Tamsen wanted to be a botanist. A botanist! Can you believe that? A pioneer woman in 1846 with a bunch of kids, traveling across the plains in a covered wagon, but she took the time to study plants. And when she got to California, great-great-great Gramma Tamsen wanted to start a girls’ school. Isn’t that something?”
Itchy grinned a toothless, gummy smile. Irene knew she was getting through to the baby. He always smiled like that when she told him Donner Family stories.
Itchy had been christened Jacob George Donner—Jacob and George be-ing the names of the Donner brothers who made up the Donner Party. But shortly after his birth, Irene noticed that Itchy constantly scratched at a little red patch by his left eye. Doctor Fleming, who came to the Tamarack clinic every Tuesday afternoon, told Irene that the red spot was just a little skin irritation and nothing to worry about. But Itchy wouldn’t stop fussing over the rosy patch, and Irene came to call him “Itchy Baby.” It got shortened to Itchy, and soon the name stuck. All of Irene’s family called him Itchy, the town knew him as Itchy, and pretty soon Irene was just about the only person left in Tamarack who remembered that his real name was “Jacob George.” Such is the way of nicknames.
As Itchy grew the patch grew, spreading red and scaly across his cheek and onto his back and chest.
“Appears to be a bad case of psoriasis,” Doctor Fleming told Irene when Itchy was four. “We can treat it with creams and lotions, and it’ll come and go.
But it’s probably something Itchy’s going to have to deal with all his life.”