Saturday, February 02, 2013

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Astray by Emma Donoghue
[F]or the past decade and a hlaf, I've been writing stories about travels to, within, and occasionally from the United States and Canada. Most of these travelers are real people who left traces in the historical record; a few are characters I invented to put a face on real incidents of border crossing. Many of them stray in several sense, when in the course of their journeys across geographical and political boundaries they find themselves stepping over other ones: law, sex, or race. Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways--they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they're out of place, out of their depth. (Afterword, 263)
I loved everything about this book (including the cover art). As Donoghue explains so eloquently in her Afterword, Astray is a collection of short stories that together are a study on what it means to stray (in every sense of the word). The stories are thematically organized into three groups: departures, in transit, and arrivals and aftermaths. They are set at various points in time between 1639 and 1967 and focus on a diverse group of individuals.

My favorite thing about Astray is that the stories are inspired by something that actually happened (or supposedly happened). Each story is followed by a note, usually a couple of paragraphs long, that explains its inspiration. What I like most is that the genesis of some of the stories is the smallest mention of something in a historical document. One of the joys of working as an archivist is coming across the types of tidbits that piqued Donoghue's interest. Our most visceral reaction to such a discovery is either a great desire to find out more information (research imperative) or a need to speculate about what really happened, using our imagination to fill in the gaps (daydreaming), or both. I suspect most of us don't often act on the former (because we have work to do), but instead keep mental lists (or photocopies) of the potential-laden morsels (I know I do). I love that Donoghue has followed these paths to their logical conclusion and given life to the historical snippets that haunted her.

I want a copy for my library. Astray is going on my wish list.

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