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Literature / The Hunger

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The Hunger is a 2018 Historical Fiction/supernatural horror novel written by Alma Katsu. It is a fictionalized retelling of the travails of the infamous Donner Party on their doomed trek westward.

Ever since they left Independence, Missouri, things have been going wrong for the Donner Party. Their wagons keep breaking down, most of their livestock has died or been stolen, their supplies are running low, and the party's members can barely stand each other. But that's only the beginning of their troubles. The party is following the advice of Lansford Hastings, a self-aggrandizing adventurer who claims to have found a shortcut through the rugged Wasatch Range. It soon turns out that his shortcut is no such thing, and the party realizes that they will be forced to endure winter in the forbidding Sierra Nevada Mountains. Worse, it gradually becomes clear that someone or something is stalking the party, slowly infecting them with a strange ailment that eventually drives them mad with a craving for raw, fresh meat...


Not to be confused with Tony Scott's first movie, or the Whitley Strieber novel that inspired it.

This work contains examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Real Life party member Jean-Baptiste Trudeau is removed from Katsu's version of the Donner Party and replaced with an original character named Thomas.

  • Age-Gap Romance: Most of the couples in the wagon train have significant age differences, as was the norm at the time. George Donner is 60, and his wife Tamsen is 44. Charles Stanton is 35, and Mary Graves is 20. Lavinah Murphy’s two oldest daughters are teenagers married to men in their thirties.

  • Age Lift: Margaret Reed is stated to be older than her husband James, who is 45. In reality, she was 32 during the events of the novel.

  • All of the Other Reindeer: Everyone in the party assumes that Tamsen Donner is a witch, due to her extensive knowledge of herbalism and her reputation as The Vamp. She's (barely) tolerated at first thanks to her husband's popularity, but as George Donner starts to lose his grip, and after she kills Luke Halloran in self-defense, everyone in the party ostracizes her.

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  • Ambiguously Bi: James Reed has been married three times and produced several children, but he's also had affairs with two men. It's unclear whether he's actually bisexual or just gay and using his wife as a cover for his orientation.

  • Anti-Villain: Lewis Keseberg has become this by the end of the book. Since he's an asymptomatic carrier of the na’it disease, he can’t be infected. He’s therefore assumed the role of protector for the survivors of the party, feeding the na’it bits of the dead and fighting them off when they attack.

  • Apocalyptic Log: Edwin Bryant’s letters to his fiancee serve as this, as he gets lost in the mountains and discovers the origins of the na’it curse. Unlike most examples of the trope, though, he survives his ordeal, thanks to some friendly Washoe.

  • Arranged Marriage: Tamsen and George Donner, and Jacob and Doris Wolfinger. Lavinah Murphy apparently arranged matches for her daughters. Mary Graves was set for such a marriage, but her fiance died in a hunting accident.

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  • Artistic License – History: The novel keeps the basic structure and timeline of the Donner Party, but takes artistic license with just about everything else. According to the afterword and a blog post on the author's website, this was done in order to create a more interesting story for the reader. Most notably, Real Life party member Jean-Baptiste Trudeau disappears completely, replaced by an original character. Katsu also creates a fictional Native tribe, the Anawai, in order not to smear the historical Washoe and Paiute tribes.

  • Awful Wedded Life: Tamsen Donner is deeply unhappy in her marriage. It's downplayed with the Reeds. Theirs was a marriage of convenience, and Margaret is implied to be frustrated with her husband's lack of backbone, but she and James still care for each other.

  • Betty and Veronica: Charles Stanton briefly finds himself caught between the sweet, innocent Mary Graves (Betty), and the seductive, experienced Tamsen Donner (Veronica). He winds up ditching Tamsen in favor of Mary, though he doesn’t think he’s good enough for her.

  • Bittersweet Ending: As in real life, many of the main characters are dead, including Charles Stanton and Tamsen Donner, but James Reed survives and is reunited with his family. Mary Graves lives as well.

  • Boomerang Bigot: John Snyder, who has been having sex with James Reed, refers to Reed as a “fucking faggot” when the latter tries to break things off.

  • Broken Bird: Stanton is a male example. He is a withdrawn, deeply lonely man who is riddled with self-loathing and other emotional baggage.

  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Stanton and Mary Graves. He's a jaded, self-hating older man who keeps to himself and is regarded as an outsider by the rest of the party. She's a kind, sweet-spirited young woman who falls hard for Stanton and slowly begins to draw him out of his shell.

  • Brother–Sister Incest: Downplayed. Tamsen Donner apparently fell in love with her brother Jory when she was younger, though she never told him.

  • Bring Help Back: At one point, Stanton rides out to buy supplies for the rest of the party when they're in desperate straits. After the party gets snowed into the Sierra Nevadas, a team consisting of Stanton, Mary Graves, and a few others attempt to hike out of the mountains to bring help. James Reed returns to the party after having been exiled, bringing help with him.

  • Byronic Hero: Charles Stanton is a classical example: handsome, intelligent, emotionally conflicted, brooding and jaded, and has a Dark and Troubled Past to top it all off.

  • Cannibal Larder: The party eventually winds up preserving the bodies of their dead in the snow for later consumption. Near the end of the novel, Lewis Keseberg has a flashback to his childhood in Germany, in which he remembers watching his father carve up human corpses in the family’s slaughterhouse.

  • Cassandra Truth: James Reed spends the first half of the novel warning people not to trust Lansford Hastings and to to start rationing their supplies. Nobody takes him seriously, since he tends to put on airs and is regarded as effeminate by many of the other men in the party. Some of them even threaten to hang him if he keeps talking about it. He is, of course, correct on both counts, which everyone else only realizes when it's too late. Thomas, the Native teenager who joins the party about halfway through the novel, also warns them repeatedly about the na'it, but is dismissed as an "ignorant savage".

  • Character Tic: Reed wipes his hands and forehead with his handkerchief when he’s upset or distressed. The narration specifically notes that his hair is thinning because he does it so often.

  • Chekhov's Gun: Tamsen Donner's derringer. It first shows up when Lewis Keseberg attempts to murder Stanton, using the derringer to implicate Tamsen. Stanton keeps it and later uses it to commit suicide after being bitten and infected by one of the na'it.

  • Chick Magnet: Stanton. Tamsen Donner, Mary Graves, and several other women in the party are taken with him, and he has had several affairs in his past.

  • Closet Gay: James Reed, who winds up killing John Snyder rather than let the man reveal that they’ve been having sex.

  • The Corruption: The na’it disease at first weakens its victims such that they appear to be suffering from tuberculosis or a similar disease, then imbues them with manic energy before transforming them into animalistic killing machines.

  • Dark and Troubled Past: Poor Stanton. At first, it’s suggested that he left home because he impregnated his childhood sweetheart, a girl named Lydia Knox, who then committed suicide when he refused to marry her. Later, a flashback reveals the truth: Stanton never slept with Lydia. In fact, he had proposed to her, but she turned him down and revealed that she was pregnant by her father, who had forced her into his bed. She swore a distraught Stanton to secrecy, and later committed suicide because she couldn’t live with the shame. When her father mocked Stanton for his youthful naivete, Stanton snapped and nearly beat the man to death with his bare hands. Mr. Knox gave him a bundle of hush money and told him to get lost. Stanton’s been drifting westward ever since.

  • Death of a Child: Multiple times. Several children die in the course of the novel, which is, sadly, a historical fact.

  • Despair Event Horizon: Mary Graves seems to hit hers after Stanton’s suicide. Her sister has to force her to keep walking.

  • Destructive Romance: Stanton and Tamsen’s brief affair comes across as this, as does Tamsen’s own relationship with her husband. James Reed’s affairs with his clerk and John Snyder also have elements of the trope.

  • Determinator: Edwin Bryant, who keeps chasing Native tales of strange creatures in the mountains even as he gets lost, runs out of food, and loses his horse.

  • Driven to Madness: Anyone who is infected by the na'it curse begins to slowly go mad.

  • Driven to Suicide: Several characters either attempt or commit it, including Elitha Donner, Lydia Knox, and Charles Stanton.

  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Reed eventually gets fed up with being blamed for the party's misfortunes, especially since he was the one who'd warned against taking the Hastings Cutoff in the first place and had proposed the institution of rationing schemes for their food. Margaret and Stanton call out the rest of the party for their ingratitude.

  • Dying as Yourself: Stanton kills himself to keep from becoming a na’it.

  • Dwindling Party: As in real life, the Donner Party steadily shrinks on its way west, with people dying from disease, exhaustion, and injury. In this case, they're also being picked off by the na'it.

  • Eldritch Abomination: The na’it are humans cursed with an unnatural hunger for flesh. They seem to assume wolflike characteristics and continue to exist as spirits even after death.

  • Even Evil Has Standards: Lewis Keseberg is a bastard, but even he balks at eating people. This is all the more notable because he’s afflicted with a disease that makes him crave human flesh.

  • Everyone Has Standards: Tamsen Donner may be happy to run around on her husband, but she’ll be damned if she lets someone as loathsome as Lewis Keseberg lay a hand on her. She is genuinely offended when Stanton insinuates otherwise.

  • The Exile: James Reed is booted out of the party after murdering John Snyder, which everyone believes is a death sentence. He survives, though, thanks to his daughter bringing him supplies. The Donners themselves are exiled from the group later on, since everyone has lost confidence in George Donner’s leadership and believes that Tamsen is a witch.

  • Fictionalized Death Account: Everyone who dies in the novel dies roughly when they're supposed to according to the historical timeline, but due to the addition of the na'it and other subplots, some of the deaths do not match historical fact. For example, Luke Halloran died of tuberculosis, not being stabbed in self-defense while turning into a wendigo-like monstrosity, and Charles Stanton simply sat down and froze or starved to death, rather than shooting himself. Tamsen Donner allows Lewis Keseberg to kill her and use her body for food; the actual circumstances of her death are unknown to this day.

  • Fingore: George Donner gets his hand crushed by the family’s prairie schooner while trying to repair a broken axle. Tamsen’s narration describes the result as a “paddle of pulpy, mashed flesh.”

  • The First Cut Is the Deepest: Stanton's heart was shattered by the death of his childhood sweetheart, Lydia Knox, specifically by the fact that she rejected his proposal and committed suicide in front of him after revealing that she had been raped and impregnated by her father. His budding romance with Mary Graves is haunted by his grief and regret over this tragedy.

  • Foregone Conclusion: For anyone who knows the story of the Donner Party, the deaths that occur will not be a surprise.

  • Frame-Up: At one point, Lewis Keseberg tries to murder Charles Stanton, and attempts to implicate Tamsen Donner by using her derringer.

  • From Bad to Worse: The party slogs through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Desert, losing people, livestock, and equipment along the way. They're running out of food, nobody trusts anybody else, and they still have hundreds of miles to go before they reach California. Then they realize that they're going to be trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as winter sets in. Then they find out that someone, or something, is stalking them through the wilderness.

  • Gayngst: James Reed suffers from it in spades.

  • Green-Eyed Monster: Tamsen becomes jealous of Mary Graves after she realizes that Charles Stanton has fallen for the younger woman.

  • Groin Attack: Tamsen puts a knee into Keseberg's family jewels when he grabs her.

  • Hate Sink: Lewis Keseberg seems written to be as loathsome as humanly possible. In real life, he was one of the more unsavory members of the Donner Party—he really did leave poor Mr. Hardkoop to die, and his spousal abuse appears to be historical fact as well—but Alma Katsu makes him into a savage, crude, pedophilic asshole.

  • Heroic BSoD: Mary Graves lapses into one after Stanton shoots himself. Her sister has to baby her along to keep her from simply collapsing into the snow and letting herself die.

  • Hidden Depths: Keseberg, of all people, is given a new dimension in the last third of the book. It’s revealed that he is afflicted with the na’it disease, it being some kind of family curse he brought with him from Germany. Despite his thuggery, perverse behavior, and general unpleasantness, he has spent his adult life resisting the urge to eat people. He even abandoned his father to rot in jail and rejected his uncle’s offer of partnership because both of them happily indulged their cravings. When he realizes that he is the only one who can fight the na’it without succumbing to the disease, he assumes the role of protector for the remaining members of the party, appeasing the monsters with offerings of flesh from the party’s dead and fighting them off when they get too close.

  • Historical Domain Character: Everyone in the novel except for Thomas (an original character who replaces actual party member Jean-Baptiste Trudeau), Edwin Bryant's mentor Walton Gow, Lydia Knox and her father, and Keseberg's uncle.

  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The real Lewis Keseberg was something of a prick; he left the elderly Mr. Hardkoop behind to die and was reportedly abusive toward his wife, but there is no evidence that he was anything like the savage, pedophilic thug depicted in the book. To a lesser extent, Jim Bridger also gets this; he is known to have promoted the Hastings Cutoff because it would bring him more business, but the novel strongly implies that he hid Edwin Bryant’s letters advising the Donner Party not to take the cutoff, which was never proven for certain. He is also shown keeping a na’it as some kind of strange pet.

  • Horror Hunger: The primary trait of the na’it; they manifest a ravenous craving for human flesh.

  • A House Divided: The party is often its own worst enemy. As their situation deteriorates, mistrust, factionalism, and paranoia all contribute to pulling them apart.

  • Humanoid Abomination: The na’it.

  • Humans Are Bastards: This seems to be an underlying theme in the book: when the chips are down, people will turn on each other with little to no provocation. The only main characters to escape the trope are Charles Stanton, Mary Graves, and Edwin Bryant. Granted, this does have some basis in historical fact. In real life, the Donner Party was often riven by internal dissent and factionalism during their westward trek, which contributed to their troubles during the winter.

  • Human Sacrifice: One of the Native tribes in the region has taken to worshiping the na’it, offering up sacrifices in an effort to appease their hunger.

  • I Gave My Word: Stanton swore to Lydia Knox that he would never reveal the truth of her child’s paternity to anyone, and he has kept his word despite the damage it’s done to his reputation and mental health.

  • I'm a Humanitarian: Aside from those in the Donner Party who turn to cannibalism, the na’it are people afflicted with an insatiable craving for human flesh. They are revealed to have originated with Reiner Keseberg, who happily indulged his cannibalistic cravings and spread the disease.

  • The Ingenue: Mary Graves is presented as an innocent and naive young woman. Tamsen Donner resents her for it.

  • Injun Country: Invoked, since the party is traveling through territory inhabited by several Native tribes, including the Paiute, the Washoe, and the (fictional) Anawai.

  • Insecure Love Interest: Charles Stanton doesn't believe that he's good enough for Mary Graves, even as he recognizes his growing feelings for her.

  • Kick the Dog: Keseberg doesn’t just kick Luke Halloran’s dog, he shoots it. He also abandons an elderly member of the party to die by the side of the trail and routinely beats his wife.

  • Kill It with Fire: Tamsen uses an oil lamp to kill a few na’it early on. Later, fires prove to be the only reliable means of keeping them at bay. The local Native tribes also insist on burning any possible na'it corpses they come across.

  • Last Kiss: Bitterly subverted. As he is preparing to kill himself after being infected with the na'it disease, Stanton desperately wants to kiss Mary Graves goodbye. He holds himself back because he can already feel the craving for human flesh overtaking him, and he doesn't want to risk hurting her.

  • Loads and Loads of Characters: As in reality, the Donner Party has a lot of people along for the ride. note  The main characters are the Donner families, the Reeds, Charles Stanton, Mary Graves, and Lewis Keseberg, but there are several other families (Lavinah Murphy and her clan, the Eddys, Graveses, Breens, Wolfingers, and McCutcheons), along with hired teamsters, individual travelers, and a few Natives who attach themselves to the party.

  • Loners Are Freaks: Stanton finds himself isolated and nearly friendless in the party thanks to this trope; people think there's something wrong with a man who's still a bachelor in his mid-thirties, and soon enough rumors about him are swirling throughout the party. This leads to ...

  • Loners Will Stay Alone: Stanton already has no family or close friends in his life, and his habitual aloofness only causes the rest of the party to keep their distance, with the exceptions of Edwin Bryant, Mary Graves, and Tamsen Donner. Stanton seems to believe that this is what he deserves.

  • Lost Lenore: Lydia Knox for Charles Stanton.

  • Mama Bear: Tamsen Donner, whatever her faults, is a fiercely protective mother to her children, both her own and the two stepdaughters she inherited when she married George Donner. She goes so far as to allow Keseberg to kill her and use her body to feed them rather than let them starve.

  • Marriage of Convenience: Half the married couples in the party. Tamsen Donner and Margaret Reed are widows who remarried so they'd have someone to provide for them (and in Margaret's case, for her children).

  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The na’it curse can be transferred via bites and the consumption of infected flesh, not unlike rabies, but it seems to possess a supernatural component as well, similar to the tales of the Wendigo. In the end, it's unclear whether it is some kind of bizarre communicable disease or an actual curse.

  • More Teeth than the Osmond Family: The na'it have mouths full of sharp, curving fangs.

  • The Mourning After: Stanton has been in mourning ever since the death of his childhood sweetheart, who killed herself after being raped and impregnated by her father.

  • Must Not Die a Virgin: Elitha Donner sleeps with Thomas, on whom she has a massive crush, apparently because of this trope.

  • Native Guide: Edwin Bryant hires Thomas to serve as his guide, though the kid freaks out when he hears the na'it nearby and bolts. This means that the party is disinclined to listen to his warnings when he joins them later on.

  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Charles Stanton dealt one to Herbert Knox when the older man taunted him about Lydia's death. The narration specifically notes that Stanton would have killed Knox if the latter’s servants hadn’t intervened.

  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Well, this is a novel about the Trope Namer, so ...

  • "Not So Different" Remark: At the end of the book, Keseberg tries this on Tamsen Donner, telling her that they are both people who know what they want and will do anything to get it. Tamsen rejects the comparison in disgust and tells Keseberg she’ll prove it by letting him kill her to use as food for the rest of the party.

  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: At one point, George Donner gets drunk and tells Stanton about Tamsen's past affairs. He then states that he knows she's cheating on him with another man in the wagon train, and vows to kill whoever it is. As Stanton happens to be that man, he feels deeply guilty about the whole thing.

  • One Last Smoke: Stanton rolls a cigarette full of good Virginia tobacco and smokes it before he kills himself.

  • Only Sane Man: Stanton. As the rest of the wagon train slowly turns on each other, he remains laser-focused on survival and on keeping the peace as best he can, knowing that if the party falls apart, they’re doomed.

  • OOC Is Serious Business: Tamsen realizes something is wrong with Luke Halloran when he starts to lash out at her and everyone else in the party, when previously he had been a kind and polite young man who was very appreciative of her ministrations.

  • The Ophelia: Elitha Donner, who often wanders around the party's encampments while having animated conversations with thin air (she's actually talking to the disembodied voices in her head). Since no one else can hear these voices, she naturally comes across as mentally unwell.

  • Papa Wolf: Franklin Graves threatens to expose Stanton’s past if he continues to speak to Mary, and it’s clear he’s doing this out of concern for his daughter’s well-being, even if he is being a prick about it.

  • Parental Incest: Lydia Knox, Charles Stanton’s childhood sweetheart, was a victim of her father’s perverse desires.

  • Patient Zero: Keseberg’s uncle Reiner turns out to have been the origin of the na’it; he brought his curse with him from Germany and passed it on to some prospectors he met up with in the mountains six years before the party set out. It is now spreading through the Native tribes in the region, as well as the Donner Party.

  • Rage Breaking Point: Stanton hit his years ago, after Herbert Knox drunkenly taunted him about Lydia. He snapped and nearly beat the man to death with his bare hands.

  • Rape as Drama: Keseberg sexually abuses several of the younger girls in the party, then attempts to rape Elitha Donner. Elitha's Love Interest Thomas intervenes on her behalf and is shot and killed for his trouble.

  • Sacrificial Lion: Stanton. Though his death was a Foregone Conclusion, it also serves to illustrate the dire situation the party is trapped in.

  • The Savage Indian: Invoked and averted. The main Native character, Thomas, has received a Western education and is wiser than his youth would suggest, fully averting the trope. In spite of this, the white settlers in the Donner Party dismiss his tales of the na'it as superstitious nonsense. The trope is also invoked when they lose some of their livestock to the Paiute, as occurred in real life. The Washoe tribe are perfectly friendly, however, and some of them save Edwin Bryant's life and provide him with a horse and supplies so he can return to settled territory. The one tribe that indulges in savage stereotypes, such as Human Sacrifice, is fictional.

  • Second Love: Mary Graves for Charles Stanton. Sadly, it doesn't end well.

  • Short Cuts Make Long Delays: As in real life, this is what dooms the Donner Party. They follow the advice of Lansford Hastings, an "explorer" who, when he wrote his guidebook to California and Oregon, had never actually traveled the entirety of the route he was recommending to other immigrants. This "shortcut" was actually 150 miles longer than the standard route. As a result, the party loses a month of valuable time struggling through the Wasatch Range and across the Great Salt Desert, and they are trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the onset of winter.

  • Smitten Teenage Girl: Mary Graves, who is just out of her teens, falls hard for Charles Stanton. Similarly, thirteen-year-old Elitha Donner falls in love with Thomas, an original character who takes the place of actual party member Jean-Baptiste Trudeau.

  • Snowed-In: The party becomes trapped in the Sierra Nevadas by the onset of winter. They're forced to bunker down as best they can.

  • Snow Means Death: The onset of winter spells doom for the Donner Party, and many characters die in the snow, including Charles Stanton, Thomas, Franklin Graves, and Tamsen Donner.

  • Spiritual Successor: To Dan Simmons’ 2006 novel The Terror. Both books are a fictionalized retelling of a historical event in which a pioneering group of people became trapped in a remote and inhospitable location by the onset of a brutal winter and resorted to cannibalism to survive. Both books also add a supernatural element in the form of hostile, monstrous beings with a taste for human flesh who stalk and torment the trapped groups. To extend the comparison, the Donner Party and the Franklin Expedition even occurred at the same time; the party became trapped in the Sierra Nevadas in the winter of 1846, just after the expedition’s ships were first frozen in off King William Island in the Arctic.

  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The na’it are pretty much just wendigos with the serial numbers filed off. Was Once a Man? Check. Afflicted with a bizarre, possibly supernatural craving for human flesh that can never be satisfied? Check. Associated with winter and starvation? Check.

  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: George Donner hates James Reed, and the feeling is mutual. Charles Stanton runs afoul of Franklin Graves thanks to Mary Graves' feelings for him, and has problems with most of the other men. Most of the people in the party think that Tamsen is a witch and keep their distance from her, and absolutely nobody likes Lewis Keseberg. Things only get worse after they're stranded in the Sierra Nevadas; open hostility erupts between the largest families, with the other people in the party forced to take sides or left to fend for themselves.

  • That Old-Time Prescription: Tamsen Donner collects herbs, mushrooms, and other flora to make into folk remedies. Though they're generally effective, they also get her branded as a witch.

  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Stanton and Mary Graves. They don't even get so much as a kiss before Stanton kills himself to avoid becoming a na'it.

  • Was Once a Man: The na'it are humans infected by some kind of communicable disease that transforms them into animalistic pack hunters and afflicts them with a craving for human flesh.

  • What You Are in the Dark: Many of the characters are forced to grapple with this trope. Charles Stanton regards himself as a coward and a weakling, but he rises to the challenges that the party faces and proves himself to be better than he thinks he is. Others don’t meet the challenge quite as well.

  • Whispering Ghosts: Elitha Donner can hear the voices of the dead, including Luke Halloran and the natives who have been killed by the na’it.

  • Would Hurt a Child: Lewis Keseberg, naturally. He sexually abuses several preteen girls, attempts to rape Elitha Donner, and tries to murder Thomas when he intervenes.

  • The Vamp: Tamsen Donner has acquired this reputation, not without reason. She seduces Charles Stanton within the first fifty pages of the novel, and George later drunkenly admits to Stanton that her affairs with other men were part of the reason he decided to move his family west.

  • The Virus: The na’it disease works like this. Transmitted via bite or consumption of infected meat, it slowly takes over its victims, turning them into cannibalistic savages.

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