While Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel “Room” was a tale of imprisonment, her new and splendid collection, “Astray,” is all about breaking through barriers. In these 14 stories, her characters cross geographical, sexual, political, moral, and class borders. Ranging from London to North America, their adventures span 400 years. A short note at the end of each supplies its source from legal records, diaries, letters, newspaper reports, gossip, census polls, and poems. Such a lagniappe offers up not only a history lesson but also an insider’s wink: Look how I created this journey from fact to fiction.
And what a trip it is. Told with pathos and humor, from diverse points of view, in authentic-sounding vernacular, the characters capture us with their hardscrabble lives, gender-bending surprises, money-making schemes, perilous exploits, and terrible losses.
However different the stories are, though, this very difference can hit the reader with literary jet lag and make it exhausting to move from one tale to another in a single sitting. Certain accounts seem to get short shrift. Could one particular piece work better as a novel? A novella? Is Donoghue, in the interest of covering a lot of territory, sometimes stinting on a full course meal? Yet, considering the riches of the collection, wanting more is less a complaint than a compliment, especially when treated to such a menu of assorted delights.
Even if they’re a motley crew, what all these varied characters have in common, besides their genesis in recorded history, is that nobody stays still. They’re on the move from one place toward another. Is home a fixed location tacked to a map or a transitory state? As Donoghue explains in her illuminating afterword, “Out of a mixture of dread and hope, people will always migrate for the chance of a halfway decent life . . . no matter how terrible the journey.”
It has been said that there are only two plots in literature: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Donoghue’s journeying strangers certainly prove this theory. “The writer needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course . . . what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger,” she explains.
Strangeness is the key. In “Man and Boy,” the zookeeper addresses Jumbo, the elephant, like a best friend. Struggling to persuade Jumbo to climb inside the crate, which will transport him to P.T. Barnum’s circus, he warns, “[Y]ou’re going to have to go sooner or later. . . . There comes a time in everyman’s life when he must knuckle down and do the necessary.”
In “Onward,” Caroline does the necessary to support her brother and her daughter. If her “Belle de Jour’’ sideline is not quite moral, she “doesn’t care what people say . . . What time in her day has she for shame?” For her, it’s “Onward, onward because backward is impossible.” For Mrs. Gomez, too, in “The Widow’s Cruse,” it’s time to move on. “It is best to go . . . [t]o turn the page,” she tells her lawyer.
In “Counting the Days,” Jane Johnson, “restless as a young goat that butts the fence,” sails to Quebec from Belfast to join her husband. “What distances cannot be traveled by the gaze of love?” she asks. Injun Joe and Goat, in the Yukon prospecting for gold, share a bunk during a blizzard in “Snowblind.” Though they don’t find gold, they find love. But, in a “Brokeback Mountain’’ world, such distances may not be bridged.
Many of these journeys end in tragedy. For comic relief, however, the counterfeiters in “The Body Swap” devise a cockamamie plan to ransom Lincoln’s cadaver. Their Keystone Kops antics are guaranteed to provoke laughs. There are no laughs, alas, in “The Gift,” told in letters between Sarah Bell, who sends her only child to the New York Children’s Aid Society, and Mr. Bassett who adopts her and takes her to Iowa. You’d need a Solomon to adjudicate the heartbreaking claims between the mother and the adoptive parents.
In Puritan Cape Cod, “[s]in creeps around like a fog in the night” in the excellent “The Lost Seed.” And in the Louisiana of “Vanitas,” the price of sin is death. Another kind of death occurs in “The Hunt,” when a young boy realizes he can’t bring his beloved “all the way home with him to taste his mother’s borscht,” but, instead, must join the other soldiers in a horrifying deed.
Though these stories contain many shocking moments, there is none, perhaps, more so than the truth about the father in “Daddy’s Girl.” The daughter says, “It strikes me now that I do not even know where Daddy came from . . . I wonder now if it was an adventure, at first, or an escape?”
Adventure and escape mark these narratives and motivate all voyages the characters undertake. As Donoghue notes in her afterword, “Migration is mortality by another name.” Still, in the very act of writing this original and compelling collection, she paradoxically defies mortality — by pinning these characters to the page, the author ensures that they and their stories live on.
Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels, the most recent, “Of Men and Their Mothers.’’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.