Astray by Emma Donoghue
Maybe it’s the craziness of the season, but I’ve really been appreciating short story collections. This latest title from Emma Donoghue – the author of the phenomenal Room – is an intriguingly composed compilation: Donoghue presents a story introduced with a specific city and year, then gives the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ historical background that both explains and enhances her fictionalized narrative. Each is part of a centuries-old immigration journey, grouped together in three sections: “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and in the final “Afterword,” Donoghue – herself Irish-born, British PhDed, currently Canada-domiciled – explains “why, on and off, for the last decade and a half, I’ve been writing stories about travels to, within, and occasionally from the United States and Canada.” [If you choose the audible version, you'll get a full cast of effective narrators, but the best reward comes at the end when you get to hear Donoghue herself read the "Afterword" – that leftover lilt is just soooo inviting.]
Like Donoghue who has “gone stray, stepped off some invisible track [she] was meant to follow,” her characters begin in one place and are driven out, run away, move to, or search out somewhere else. In “Man and Boy,” two “self-made prodigies” are willing to accept “[w]hatever Barnum offers” – yes, as in P.T. – and prepare to sail from London in 1882 across the Atlantic toward waiting audiences. A young woman living in 1854 London in dire circumstances in “Onward” finds a surprising benefactor (I hope you’ll be as tickled as I was to learn his identity!) who offers the possibility of a reinvented life in the new world. In “Last Supper at Brown’s,” a slave and his missus flee 1864 Texas, leaving the master “facedown in the okra” (not my favorite veggie, either!).
In “Counting the Days,” plans for reunion between a waiting husband in Canada and his Irish wife and young children are tragically thwarted. A lawless woman of the Wild West captures a wayward prospector, and acting as her own “judge and jury,” decides to return him to his family with a few adventures along the way in “The Long Way Home.” In “The Gift,” a destitute new mother gives up her daughter in 1877 and spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her. The private lives of a 1639 Cape Cod community are transgressively revealed, then recanted in “The Lost Seed.” And, in my personal favorite, “Daddy’s Girl,” a young woman learns the true identity of her father only upon his death.
Harnessing her own searching spirit, Donoghue ventures through centuries and continents, across oceans and cultures, to present a unique collection of peripatetic characters, each ready to confront, challenge, or flee what life presents next. Be assured: Going rogue never read this good.