‘Astray’ Fastens on the Emigrant, the Traveler, the Individual Who Leaves Home

In the essay collection Something to Declare, Julia Alvarez describes a folder she keeps entitled Curiosidades. Curiosidades are “news clippings, headlines, inventory lists, bits of gossip I’ve sensed have an aura about them… the seed of a plot that might turn into a novel or a query that might needle an essay out of me.”

Emma Donoghue’s new short fiction collection, Astray, reminded me of Alvarez’s curiosidades. Donoghue’s collection is more focused but functions on the same premise: each story is sparked by an actual event, usually a short news item, described in a brief afterword. Each sprung from a curiosidade.

There the writers diverge. Alvarez’s folder is unified only by the pull it exerts on her. Astray fastens on the emigrant, the traveler, the individual who leaves home. In her afterword, this Irish writer now living in Ontario, Canada says: “Why is this home?… I’ve gone astray, stepped off some invisible track that I was born to follow. How did I get here?”

She explains her departure from Ireland was for love, the reason so many of us, writers or no, are here instead of some other there. Yet Donoghue’s fascination with leaving is about more than love’s tug. To be a traveler is to encounter ethical complications, an ever-shifting line of self-definition—Donoghue cites preserving one’s accent—and the realities of being an outsider. There are the transgressions only made possible by distance: sexual, moral, legal. “…they’re out of place,” Donoghue writes of her characters. “out of their depth.”

Astray’s stories are all set in the past, the earliest 1735, the latest 1967, two years before Donoghue’s birth. Most take place in North America, though many of the characters are of English or Irish extraction. The characters try to find themselves, entering and escaping insufferable circumstances, attempting to start anew. Several themes assert themselves: the ill treatment of women, slavery in the Southern United States, sexuality, parenthood and childrearing.

In “Man and Boy”, Jumbo the Elephant is sold by the London Zoological Society to P.T. Barnum. Jumbo’s devoted handler, Matthew Scott, is appalled by his sale, so appalled he sees only one solution: he accompanies his charge across the sea to the new land of America. Donoghue’s talent for narrative is immediately evident here: the story is related in discussion form, with Scott addressing Jumbo in a back-and-forth repartee that assumes the animal’s response. The postscript informs us Jumbo’s skeleton is now stored in New York’s Museum of Natural History.

The sad “Onward”, set in 1854, tells of Caroline, her toddler daughter Pet, and her younger brother, Fred. Orphaned early, Caroline turned to the world’s oldest profession to survive. Her brother, now an adult, earns a meager salary as a journeyman draftsman; the two pretend Caroline is not a prostitute, until Fred confronts her with the fantastical notion of escaping to Canada. He knows a man who “takes an interest” in cases like Caroline’s. This sympathetic man, once very poor himself, offers money to help such women into better lives. The story is a true one. The interested man was Charles Dickens.

In “The Widow’s Cruse”, Huddlestone, a naïve, chauvinistic young lawyer, takes on the widowed Mrs. Gomez who, although a Jewess, is appealing with her modest manners and enormous inheritance. Huddlestone gallantly offers his services, scheming all the while about his fee and attendant rise in social status, aided by what he expects will be assent to his marriage proposal. To the glee of female readers everywhere, Mrs. Gomez nimbly outwits her savior.

“Last Supper At Brown’s” is a tour de force: this Irish author manages the dialogue so expertly that the reader doesn’t notice narrator Nigger Brown speaks in the cadences of a deep South slave. Instead, we see only the cruelty of his “Marse”, or master, and the kindness of Marse’s wife, Missus. The Civil War is raging, food supplies are dwindling, and Marse plans to sell Brown. Slave and wife plot, and in a fine example of emigrant transgression, the two escape Marse’s indenture.

“Counting the Days” borrows from a series of letters exchanged by Henry Johnson and Jane McConnell Johnson between 1848-1849. Henry has emigrated to Montréal and sent for his family. Jane makes the brutal crossing from Ireland with her two small children, only to discover her spouse dead from Cholera. The tension in the letters between expectant Jane and the initially hopeful Henry is wrenching.

“The Long Way Home” describes Mollie Sanger, a woman living as a man in the then-wilds of Prescott, Arizona. In a story that turns on wanting a child, Sanger essentially forces a straying husband to be a sperm donor. The story is interesting not only because of Sanger, who paid for her “cross-dressing” by being institutionalized, but because of Donoghue’s openly public interviews about the the sperm donor she and her partner used for their children, Finn and Emma.

“The Gift”, written entirely in letters, describes one Sarah Bell’s surrender of her infant daughter Lily Mae to the “New York Society”, really the New York Foundling Hospital, and her desperate, failed attempts to get her daughter back. Donoghue goes on to explain that “baby trains” or “mercy cars” loaded with orphaned or temporarily abandoned children were shipped out to the western United States, where families were eager to adopt. Lily Mae Bell was one such child, sent to a childless Iowa family who adored her and could not countenance even speaking with Sarah Bell, much less surrendering Lily, renamed Mabel.

Again, there is the faintest thread of autobiography, as same-sex couples continue to struggle for legal status as partners and parents. Canada, so often ahead of the rest of the world in such matters, recognizes both domestic partnerships and parental rights for same sex couples. Hence, Donoghue’s decision to have her children in Canada, where her partner, Chris, would have equal parental rights under the law.

“The Lost Seed” is another feat of narration. Richard Berry is a settler in Plymouth Colony who manages to madden both the reader and the story’s other characters with a volley of accusations, even as he earns our sympathy. Rigidly religious, accused of being “an old killjoy” by one of the young women in the community, Berry grows increasingly bitter and sanctimonious, earning the hatred of his fellow citizens and eventual banishment. Berry may have been homosexual; records bear this out.

“Vanitas”, set in Louisiana, is another haunting story turning on slavery. A bored Creole teenager, Aimée, rummages in the attic, only to find a trunk of fine clothing belonging to a deceased cousin. She presses her maid, Millie, herself a teenager, for the reason’s behind the young woman’s death. Millie releases some information, but Aimée, young and thoughtless, pesters her Tante Fanny, the dead girl’s mother, for the truth. Her meddling, mixed with youthful lies, brings disastrous results for both Millie and her family.

“The Hunt” is another story set in Civil War territory, seen through the eyes of a teenaged German boy unwillingly sent to fight with the Confederates. It is, after “Vanitas”, the book’s most sickening story. The soldiers have decided to rape all women in the territory, regardless of age. When the boy hesitates, the older soldiers humiliate and pressure him; in short order he shifts from child to monster.

“Daddy’s Girl”, like “The Long Way Home”, focuses on a female who takes on male dress and mannerisms. Yet Murray Hall, who Donoghue tells us little is known about, successfully lived as a male, fooling even her daughter, who did not realize her father was a woman until death exposed the ruse.

In the final story, “What Remains” turns on the aged sculptor Florence Wyle and her best friend and life partner, fellow sculptor Frances “Queenie” Loring. The women live in a nursing home, just a few rooms apart, but dementia has claimed Queenie. Florence is resolute in the face of her friend’s derangement, even as she makes arrangements for the women to visit Queenie’s masterwork, the famous “Lion Sculpture,” at the base of Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Monument. The journey is in vain.

Even if the modern era makes leaving home easier than it was for many of us—sadly, perilous ocean crossings are alive and well, as are terrifying journeys into the United States from Mexico, where too many people, including children, perish from harsh weather, hunger, and thirst—those of us who leave home never quite get over it. No matter how long one inhabits the new “home”, there is always a missing piece. The missing piece may be small—a type of food, a figure of speech—or large: those dear to us, who grow distant despite technology’s efforts to pretend we’re in the same room.

To willingly leave home is to turn your back on those choosing to stay behind. And that alone is trangressive. For those who have left, Astray may offer succor. For those who stayed behind, explanation. For all, an admirable read.

RATING 8 / 10