After I wept over the last page of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel Room, I took a break from reading altogether. The break was more for self-preservation than anything else: Donoghue had managed, over the course of her horrific tale of a mother and child’s sadistic imprisonment and wrenching return to the world, to lock me into a tiny cell, a knot of intensely plotted turns and hypnotic language so tight that other novels could not unravel it. After living in Room, I saw all my environments differently. Locks clicked with more finality, and large spaces suddenly left me gasping for air. I put the book away, fleeing to nonfiction for several months afterwards. Fiction had taken me too deep down the rabbit hole.
So it’s with some relief that I can say that Donoghue’s Astray poses no similar threat. Instead of pulling the reader close into a whispered narrative of despair as she did in Room, Donoghue now throws the windows of the world open in fourteen stories of wanderlust, exploration, and possibilities promised by new and unknown lands. The stories are split into three sections “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and each stage of travel poses questions of why we travel, migrate, and drive forward into new territories, and what cost. Where once she constrained us to an eleven-by-eleven-foot cell, Donoghue’s stage is expansive and generous. She notes in her lovely afterword, that our wanderlust is really about the desire to find our fates: “Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form…Moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.”
Each of Donoghue’s storytellers goes on great journeys, yet she tethers them before they — and we — ever know it. Each story, shifting in time and location across the last four centuries, concludes with a note from Donoghue, revealing the factual roots that inspired it. In “Man and Boy,” she shows us the poignant bond between the trainer Matthew Scott and his ward, the famous elephant known as “Jumbo,” just as the future circus magnate P.T. Barnum is making an offer to bring the beast into his American tour circuit in 1882. Donoghue slips, Zelig-like, into each story and embellishes the historical skeleton with perfectly attuned language: as the trainer Scott strokes Jumbo’s trunk, he murmurs, “We don’t mind the piddling tiddlers of this world, do we, boy? We just avert our gaze.” The “based upon a true story” hook makes the stories wildly informative and engaging. It’s not necessarily the case that narrative needs truth for maximum impact, but finding the kernel of reality in each tale makes the bigger tale even more resonant. In “Onward,” a young mother turns from a life of prostitution and wins her ticket to Canada by way of Charles Dickens. In “The Widow’s Cruse,” a young lawyer sees only what he wants to see in a young Jewish widow seeking his help. (Donoghue digs deep into the lawyer’s intentions, giving us the delicious description of his lechery. “The days that followed were full of pleasurable anticipations, and the nights brought scalding dreams. His sheets were dreadfully stained; he had to send them out for laundering.”) Donoghue knows how to employ the very best descriptors, all while perfectly mimicking the tone of her story’s time and place. “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in 1735 New York, sounds just as Edgar Allen Poe might lay it out, perfectly noble on the surface and subtly sinister below, just as “Snowblind” is pulled straight from the mouths of doomed prospectors as they trudge into the frozen Yukon during the 1896 Gold Rush. Jack London would be proud.
Some stories are less provocative than others — the moment of a mother’s journey across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (juxtaposed with her dying husband on shore), or the story of grave robbers going after Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, fall too much on our pre-established pathos and recognition to move the uninformed reader. But where Donoghue really gets us is in the stories that challenge their very contexts. I found unanticipated humor and intrigue in “The Long Way Home,” the story of Mollie Monroe, a cowgirl who also acts as a bounty hunter for wayward husbands in 1870s Arizona, and who agrees to an unlucky trade with one of her targets. The story’s resolution is unexpected in its modern bravado, and Donoghue’s revelation of its true-to-life source — an apocryphal story about a female bounty hunter later committed for insanity (aka cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism) only makes it more entertaining. But the most startling of these tales, and perhaps the most consequential, has to be “The Lost Seed,” the account of a settler in Cape Cod in 1639, who begins his time in the New World a good Christian, forgiving and compassionate for his neighboring colonists. “If we do not help each other, who will help us? We are all sojourners in a strange land…in this rough country we stand together or we fall.” But as time passes, “each household shuts its doors at night,” and so the man shuts his heart against his former friends. He is scorned by a girl he fancies, and later turns and accuses her and another woman of lewd behavior, of laying together with “not a hand-span between their bodies. It is time now to put our feet to the spades to dig up evil and all its roots.” It would seem that despite the initial clean slate of the new world, it would only take a single man’s wicked and petty mind to sully the entire enterprise. Once part of a community, he now wanders “across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime.”
Perhaps travel is what produces the desire to settle down at all, in that finding oneself without territory can be profoundly destabilizing. The same impulse that would drive us to travel, to form new communities in new lands, is the same that would have us cling to our tiny plots and ward off interlopers. Accord and antipathy may grow from the same tree, if the soil allows it to be so. A new home, a new land, promises a chance at new definition, a chance to clear old disappointments away and start again. As Donoghue notes in her Afterword, perhaps written as she tours the globe telling stories, “I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this? . . . 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.” By giving us true stories of wanderers and vagabonds in search of broader vistas, Donoghue has given narrative weight to both the journey and the destination. And in offering up history newly made into stories, Donoghue makes the journey of literary reinvention into its own reward.