Characters go ‘Astray’ in Donoghue’s stories

Mike Fischer / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel /


“Astray” by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Co., $25.99)

In her novel “Room,” Emma Donoghue let us see the world from the vantage point of a little boy in an 11-by-11-foot room. In the stories gathered in “Astray,” Donoghue busts loose, returning to her roots in historical fiction by going forth into the wider world.

Donoghue’s fellow travelers are voyagers who, between 1639 and 1968, left the world they knew for undiscovered countries from which they never returned. Each of their stories is introduced by a date and locale and followed by a brief snippet, ranging from a few lines to a few paragraphs, in which Donoghue grounds her flights of fancy in the history inspiring them.

In the initial section of “Astray,” each such flight involves an escape from confinements which has narrowed their protagonists’ choices.

In the first, an elephant and his keeper leave London’s zoo, bound for new adventures in America. In another, a Jewish woman in 18th-century New York confronts her own alienation in a culture that doesn’t understand her.

In “Last Supper at Brown’s,” a slave and his master’s wife contemplate a new life. In “Onward,” a young woman longs for a chance to start over — away from the hypocritical world of Victorian England, in which she was forced into prostitution after she and her brother were orphaned.

Each of these stories confirms Donoghue’s observation, in an illuminating Afterword, that migrants are often strangers in the land they leave as well as the one they seek — “strays,” to use her word, who cross legal, racial and sexual boundaries as well as geographic ones.

Not all of Donoghue’s characters can handle the freedom their adventures make possible. In the middle and final sections of “Astray,” men and women trying on new identities often retreat in fear.

A Creole in antebellum Louisiana locks herself in her room and pines for France. “The water turned to ice on my cheeks,” a stern New England Puritan tells us, upon finally realizing why he has been such a killjoy — and how much living it has cost him.