'Migrants are awkward'

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Astray" by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 275 pp. $25.99

Two years ago, Emma Donoghue shocked the literary world with "Room," the story of Jack, a 5-year-old son of an abduction victim. Jack has spent his entire life in the confines of one single room. Everything that does not exist in this space -- bunnies, ice cream, trees, etc. -- exists only on television.

"Room" was a story of the solitary: Jack's life centers around this one space.

"Astray," a collection of short stories, is a story of movement. The characters are each traveling away from their comforts and to an unknown area of the world.

In some stories, the characters are fleeing for a better life.

"The Widow's Cruse" follows a na*ve lawyer who fulfills the will of a widow's deceased husband, without checking first into the reasoning of the widow's request to have her inheritance in cash.

"Last Supper at the Browns" tells the story of a young slave who prepares to flee from the iron fist of his master.

In "The Lost Seed," Richard Berry realizes that the Quaker town he lived in and loved was not as blameless as he would have believed it to be.

In some stories, the characters are traveling toward, or alongside, a loved one, hoping to call their new destination "home."

Jumbo, the Bull African elephant in "Man and Boy" will not go into his trailer without his trainer, Matthew Scott. Jumbo and Scott, once a duo in the London's Zoological Gardens, are traveling to Ontario, Canada, where they will belong to a man named P.T. Barnam and perform in his show.

Jane Johnson will stop at nothing to reunite her family in "Counting the Days." She sails with her children to Quebec, hoping to find her husband waiting for them on the other side.

Donoghue segments her 14 stories into three categories: Departures, In Transit and Arrivals and Aftermaths. The stories within these categories focus on certain positions of travel, though some are a little more recognizable than others.

In "The Gift," a mother gives her young girl to an orphanage, hoping to get her back once her financial situation is more stable. The girl, however, is adopted to a generous family, who raise her as their own. The story is told through letters, both from the mother and the family, written to the orphanage, though they do not meet.

While "Astray" is not as captivating as "Room," each story has the intrigue of being based on an actual moment in history.

"Onward" tells the story of Caroline who must secretly sell herself in order to help support her brother, Fred and her young daughter, Pet. Donoghue found a letter written by Fred to Charles Dickens, a friend of his. Fred asked Dickens to help his sister; he did not want her to continue in her prostitution.

In "The Body Swap," the thief-turned-undercover agent Jim Morrissey (an alias for Lewis Cass Swegles) infiltrated a gang of counterfeiters as they broke into Abraham Lincoln's tomb in 1876. Swegles earned five dollars a day for his work, and is documented in "The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack" by Bonnie Stahlman Speer and "Stealing Lincoln's Body" by Thomas J. Craughwell.

Donoghue is no stranger to emigration.

"The Canadian city of 300,000 people that I live in is not one I ever heard about, growing up in Dublin," she writes in the Afterword.

"Astray" is a personal journey, one that Donoghue wrote to come to terms with her own travels. A quiet novel, it's no less powerful than "Room," only less dynamic.

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