““All we like sheep have gone astray.” – Isaiah 53:6, Old Testament
Each story in Emma Donoghue’s new collection is about Europeans (including Irish and English) who will go or have gone into the New World of North America in the 17th, 18th, 19th, or early 20th centuries. Each story is based on some form of historical document, sometimes only a small item in an old newspaper, Yes, I suppose you could call “Astray” historical fiction, but the stories are all regarding common non-famous people, and go so far beyond the actual documentation that they are nearly completely works of the imagination.
Emma Donoghue makes each of these stories come vividly alive using the same story skills that made her long novel “Room” so moving. One fact I learned while preparing for this article is that Emma Donoghue’s background is as a historian. Even the novel “Room” is based on an actual historical incident, and that makes me wonder how someone so wide-ranging as an historian could write such a convincing claustrophobic novel as “Room”. In a previous article I mentioned natural-born story writers, and I do believe that Emma Donoghue does qualify as a natural. The people and events in these stories are well-developed and memorable, and the stories stay in your mind long after you have completed them.
Donoghue starts this collection with an irresistible story called ‘Man and Boy’ about an elephant Jumbo and its trainer last-named Scott. They are living in London in 1882 until P. T. Barnum buys Jumbo, and Scott must decide if he will go to the United States with Jumbo. This story is a strong start to the collection.
A continuing interest of Donoghue is that of women in extreme situations, and these stories reflect that interest. One story, ‘Onward’, is about a woman who must prostitute in her home to support her family until Charles Dickens and his friend Angela Burdett-Courts provide her with the money to emigrate to Canada. Another story, ‘The Long Way Home’, is about a cross-dressing woman who drags wayward men back to their families which they had abandoned. Another story, ‘The Hunt’ is about a young soldier in a Prussian regiment while fighting for the English. The regiment takes over a colonial estate and some of its members rape the women there.
There is nothing nostalgic, sentimental, or comforting in these historical stories. These are people in tough situations living as best they can. I appreciate the wide range of subjects in these stories which we can probably credit to Emma Donoghue’s historian background. But what makes each of these stories so vital and alive is her superior story-telling skills. This is a excellent book to read while waiting for Emma Donoghue’s next novel.