I love an errant character. Give me someone who doesn’t stay home, who’s all over the map, who strays from the old path, even if the new one leads to iniquity, exile or jail.
Astray, Emma Donoghue’s new collection of stories, is full of errant characters. They hop the pond and leave the fold. They goldmine and graverob, transgress and transform. They are lost in the great outside.
Readers may be familiar with Donoghue’s recent award-winning novel, Room, which captured better than any fiction I’ve read the psychology of inside, what it means to be caged, unfree. Astray seems, at first glance, to be the inverse of Room. The characters in these stories could not be more outside. They are cast out, not in.
Astray consists of 14 historical fictions set in England, Canada and America. Each story alights in a new place and time. Maybe you have played the game where you drop your finger on a spinning globe and imagine touching down in that place. Well, imagine the globe has an extra dimension: time. Not only are you unsure where you will land, but when.
Drop your finger. It’s London, 1882. Jumbo the elephant has been living in the Zoological Gardens for 17 years. He’s had his toenails scrubbed, his tongue rubbed, his watery eyes gazed into by his devoted caretaker, Matthew Scott. Now an ominous Jumbo-sized crate appears. Word comes down to Scott that his beloved “boy” has been sold to the American showman P.T. Barnum. The elephant must cross the sea. Unable to bear the thought of separation, Scott decides to go with him. The story ends as they are about to depart.
Drop your finger. It’s the Yukon, 1896. Two young goldminers strike it not quite rich. The real paydirt is the intimacy that grows up between them in the tiny cabin they share. But there are no signposts in this new emotional territory. Neither man knows how to travel forward, or how to go back.
Or (perhaps my favourite): Chicago, 1876. A gang of counterfeiters decides to rob Lincoln’s grave and ransom the body in order to liberate their colleague, the “Michelangelo” of counterfeiters, from jail. Needless to say, this doesn’t go exactly as planned.
All these stories are degrees of true. The characters are, for the most part, real people. In at least two instances, Donoghue has integrated actual correspondence into imagined letters or thoughts. Each story comes with a postscript that tells you its source. Also, Donoghue lets you in on what happens to the characters after the story’s action concludes. (For instance, we learn in a postscript that Jumbo made it across the ocean. His story ends in St. Thomas, Ont. – I won’t say how.)
From each story, three pictures emerge. The first is the fiction, Donoghue’s masterful dramatization of a decisive moment in a character’s life. The second is the history, the scaffolding on which Donoghue has built her imagined version. And the third is a picture of the artist herself. We witness her own peregrinations through newspapers and letters. We see her inspired. We see her enter the past through a door we might never have imagined was there.
The author is very much present, but never obtrusive. She is your guide through four centuries. You stray, as a reader, but you are never lost. You alight into private world after private world. Donoghue shows you an inner moment, then asks you to consider the broader historical moment that contains it. These are wise, searching, often funny stories.
After reading Astray, I came back to Room. I considered that being cast out is not so different from being cast in. One can stray and still be trapped. Cages are portable, as Jumbo the elephant no doubt learned. What saves us is the sympathetic presence of another, an unlikely bedfellow, an accomplice, a companion in the cage. Someone to stray with.
In the book’s afterword, Donoghue describes writing stories as an escape from the “claustrophobia of individuality.” Literature allows her to “live more than one life, walk more than one path.” She has generously invited us errant readers along . Go ahead. Spin the globe.
Jessica Grant is the author most recently of the novel Come, Thou Tortoise.
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