Readers who were astounded by Emma Donoghue’s ability in “Room” to so convincingly slip into the point-of-view of a five-year-old boy imprisoned in a single room will not be disappointed with “Astray.” In this intriguing collection of fourteen stories, Donoghue takes on a wide assortment of characters, including a slave, a prostitute, an animal trainer, gold prospectors, a pre-teen on a Southern plantation, and tells their stories in myriad forms. Spanning about 500 years and several countries (though primarily nineteenth-century U.S. and Canada), the stories shift eras and settings with such aplomb that I felt I was transported from one story to the next by a time machine.
Though fictional, each story has its genesis in an actual historical event—be they letters, newspaper accounts, legal records or other documents—that Donoghue credits in a brief explanation following each story. Although these historic origins give the collection a “ripped from the headlines” of yore feeling, it is Donoghue’s imagination that gives the stories their power. As she says in the afterward, “Sometimes it is easier to write a story if you start by knowing very little about the characters; just a spark to fall on the tinder.” Their sense of authenticity comes from her skill at knowing precisely what details to use from her research, and how to integrate those facts into the narratives without sounding forced.
The first story, “Man and Boy,” is a monologue addressed to Jumbo, the elephant, by his keeper, Matthew Scott, at the London Zoological Society shortly before the pachyderm’s sale to P.T Barnum and his ocean voyage to America. We get a sense of the keeper’s distinct voice and devotion to his “boy” (according to Donoghue, Scott actually referred to Jumbo this way) by Scott’s tender dialogue: “Yes, yes, I’ll remember to put a double fold of blanket under the corner where it is rubbing. Aren’t your toenails looking pearly after that scrub I gave them?”
In “Snowblind,” we follow two crusty young men, Goat and Injun, to the 1896 goldfields of the Yukon, slightly outside the town of Fortymile, a place that looks “like a heap of garbage washed up on a river bank.” Donoghue’s research allows us to learn the intricacies of staking claims, contracting scurvy, as well as how sleeping in damp boots can create toe rot, and how walking in the fierce winds without a wooden mask can result in filling the eyes with “scalding sand.”
Perhaps my favorite story, “The Body Swap,” takes place in Illinois in 1876 when a group of counterfeiters from Chicago decide to steal Abe Lincoln’s body from his tomb and hold it for ransom. Historic information—like Abe’s dabbling in the spirit world (“table rapping”) and Mary Todd’s confinement to an asylum—is woven into the story naturally. One of the thieves even remembers seeing Lincoln’s coffin “hung with black drapery and evergreens” eleven years prior as it “zigzagged all the way from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, going no faster than a boy could run.”
The book ends with “What Remains,” a first-person account given by an elderly sculptor, Miss F. Wyle, of her life with her partner, another sculptor, Miss F. Loring. At the time of the story, both women are living in their own rooms separated by a fifty-foot corridor in a home for the elderly. But as the narrator tells us, “they might as well be a thousand miles apart” as her companion is suffering from dementia. As she recalls their loving and unorthodox life together, the narrator tries to spark a reaction from her partner because she believes, “her memory’s still in there, like a shape locked inside the marble.”
The title comes from the Book of Isaiah (53:6), where “All we like sheep have gone astray,” fitting given that nearly everyone in the book is either about to depart from his or her geographical location, is in transit, or has recently arrived. And as Donoghue points out in the afterward, “straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected.” Many of the stories end with an O. Henry-like twist. But these surprises never feel contrived or gimmicky. Rather once we learn them, they have the paradoxical quality of seeming inevitable while remaining revelatory, sometimes shocking.
When I finished the book I was reminded of a time I loaned my copy of Donoghue’s historical novel “Slammerkin” to a friend whom I had gone to Mexico with to write. I gave her the book in the evening. In the morning, she handed it back with an acerbic, “Thanks a lot.”
“Didn’t you like it?” I asked. “I loved it.”
“That’s the problem. I stayed up all night to finish and won’t be fit to do anything today.”
This is another book I would recommend waiting until morning to read. (Garnett Kilberg-Cohen)
by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages, $26