Emma Donoghue's new book 'Astray' delves into stories of migrants


Emma Donoghue’s new book, “Astray,” is a collection of short, historical stories. Photo courtesy of Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue’s “stray,” a short story collection that switches artfully across many writing styles and narrative voices, tells 14 tales of people who are finding their way home.

Divided into three parts, Donoghue’s collection of short stories is about the world of immigrants, orphans, gold miners and other wandering people. Each story has a different approach in its style and is based on true events Donoghue found in old letters and newspaper articles. Although she fictionalizes her stories by creating the characters and giving them life, it is clear she did not stray outside of the boundaries of what she found in her research — she did not fictionalize real events too much.

Her stories range from an English elephant keeper who prepares himself for a journey to the U.S. with his beast in the late 1800s, a black slave that kills his master and runs away with his master’s wife during the Civil War and a woman who fools an attorney into helping her steal her husband’s fortune in 1735.

But what is more remarkable than Donoghue’s wide range of stories is the vast range of style she uses in telling them. The entire story of “Man and Boy” is written as Matthew Scott’s dialogue with his pet elephant Jumbo, an animal he loves dearly and more than anyone else. In “Last Supper At Brown’s,” Donoghue writes in the first person from the point of view of a slave. Other stories are told through letters between multiple parties. Some of the writing is taken directly, word for word, from old letters Donoghue found in her research.

Each of the three parts in Donoghue’s collection is symbolic for a leg of a journey — beginning, middle and end. The first part is a collection of four stories about the beginnings of a journey, the second a collection of five stories about journeys in transit and the third a collection of five stories about the ending and aftermath of a journey. Donoghue keeps a constant theme of people who are lost, traveling or finding their way.

While her stories are set in the days of Henry David Thoreau and Charles Dickens, she keeps her writing style simple and sweet — she writes about a not-so-modern time in modern style. One of her better pieces that shows this is “The Body Swap,” a story about an undercover agent who infiltrates a gang that breaks into Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in 1876. In this narrative, Donoghue keeps the crime story short and exciting.

A few stories end unsatisfactorily however. On several occasions, Donoghue ends a story at what feels like is the middle or the beginning. Several of her works could have used just two or three more pages to conclude. While she purposely writes only about the beginning of journeys in her first part, this leaves many of the stories without real endings. In part one, only “The Widow’s Curse,” in which a fake widow tricks an attorney into helping her steal her living husband’s fortune, has a complete ending. Other stories, like “Onward” end much less satisfyingly. “Onward” is about an English family who plans to escape their poor life by journeying to the new world, but ends just as the family makes their decision — the reader lacks any idea of the outcome.

Although she chooses to prematurely end a few of her stories, Donoghue is a talented storyteller. Some stories are too short, none are too long and none of her stories bore the reader.

Donoghue’s “Astray” is a well-written collection of short stories that go back and forth between despair and hope. At only 288 pages, her stories work together to tell the complicated narrative of the world’s adventurers faced in a time when the world was still being made by those who journeyed into it.