'Sometimes it is someone else's journey, someone else's decisions, that leave a thumbprint on your life," Emma Donoghue writes in the afterword to "Astray." She is speaking as a writer at that moment, but she could just as well be speaking as a reader in thrall to the power of stories, fictional, nonfictional or, like the stories in "Astray," a ventriloqual melding of the two. Like another contemporary Irish writer, Eavan Boland, Donoghue is, in this short-story collection, something of a literary archaeologist, speaking in voices that have been lost, imaginatively reconstructing the fragments of the past into a narrative that, though fictive, carries truths. Each of the stories in "Astray" is based upon a piece of historical evidence, ranging from a full (ghostwritten) autobiography ("Man and Boy") to a single line in a news story ("The Widow's Cruse").
In every case, the historical incident is fascinating in itself and as a springboard to Donoghue's deep act of imagination, her fictional re-creation of how things might have been.
The connecting thread of the collection is in the title, though the book could equally well have been called "errant." Donoghue's characters are migrants, vagabonds, displaced by choice or circumstance, errant (as in journeying adventurously), errant (as in transgressing). Fittingly, the geographic settings roam across two continents (and an ocean). The volume opens with two stories based in London but the focus soon shifts to North America: the Yukon, Quebec, Arizona, New York, Texas and seemingly everywhere in between. The time frames wander, as well. About two-thirds of the stories take place in the 19th century, but we also visit Puritan New England in 1639, Hopewell, N.J., in 1776 and Newmarket, Ontario, in 1968.
The cast of characters is as vast as the North American continent: body snatchers intent on stealing Abraham Lincoln's corpse, a prostitute helped to a new life by Charles Dickens, a woman forced by poverty to place her daughter in an orphanage, famine emigrants, even an elephant trainer. All are voiced with compassion and wisdom. Donoghue's empathic imagination is remarkable; she channels young and old, male and female so convincingly that the reader feels these stories could be actual historical narratives.
"Writing stories," Donoghue comments, is "my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, walk more than one path." Readers have plenty of opportunity to do that in "Astray." Although many of the pieces in the collection feel more like sketches than fleshed-out drawings, this sketchy quality works, oddly, to advantage, opening spaces for the reader to fill in the blanks, flesh out the story line, re-imagine the historical incident.
"Where do you get your ideas from?" is a question readers frequently ask and writers frequently dread. Emma Donoghue satisfies our curiosity with a note at the end of every story referencing the historical documents that fired her imagination. The notes and the afterword provide a gratifying window into the creative imagination -- a nice bonus for readers of "Astray."
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica.