Best short stories for the historically minded

Title:  Astray                                                                                   Author:  Emma Donoghue                                                      Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company                           Publication Date:  10/30/12                                                    Format: Hardcover, 288 pages                                                    Genre: fiction (literary)

Rating:  I loved this book.  The creativity and skill Ms. Donoghue exhibits reminds us why we are not all best selling authors, there are those among us blessed with not only talent but a passion for observing a particular theme in human nature no matter how distant it may be in time and space.  This is a 5 of 5 for TNR.

Message from the Author (reprinted from Barnes and  Some of my longtime fans were startled when I went from publishing historical novels to ROOM, with its highly contemporary storyline of a child growing up with his kidnapped mother in a locked room. But to me, there seemed a natural link. The premise of ROOM was a way of turning what couldn’t possibly be more ordinary (kid games, dinners and bedtimes) deeply strange, and I’m still touched by regular emails from readers who’ve found that the novel makes them see the stuff of their own lives – especially the daily heroism of parenthood – in a new light. Historical fiction, at its best, does the same thing: it finds stories of ordinary human life in distant settings that don’t just add ‘local colour’ to the stories but make you see these passions and struggles in a strong new light. What draws me back to the past, over and over, is its combination of the universal and the deeply strange; one minute you’re feeling that the narrator of a story set in the 1700s is more or less like you, but the next minute, you’re startled by the fact that their mindset (on, say, marriage or war) is a world away from yours. Something else that makes the past fertile ground for a writer is that the stakes are high: before the twentieth century, decisions were often literally life-or-death. My new collection, ASTRAY, is all about travel – not tourism, but life-or-death journeys. In my mind’s eye all the different characters (from a Puritan of the 1600s, to a runaway slave in the Civll War, to a toddler adopted out West in the 1890s) file past me with the weary but strong-hearted look of migrants in any era: nothing, but nothing, is going to get between them and a better life. It’s the American dream, and a timeless human dream; that by changing place you can change everything, including who you are. Some of the research I did for ROOM was into how refugees cope with transitions like the one Jack has to go through when he steps into the long-awaited Outside, and that’s the theme that runs through ASTRAY too: the extraordinary challenge of adaptation to a new world.  Thanks for being adventurous enough to come with me on my journeysEmma Donoghue

The Nashville Connection:  Emma Donoghue is coming to the Nashville Public Library’s Salon@615 on November 13.

Review:  The fourteen stories in Astray almost defy review.  In that way that other people’s personal choices confound the opinions of others, each one of these stories demands its own life; but, just like their readers the stories are thematically bound.  Stories of coming and going, of crossing the boundries of geography, love and hate, gender, being human or animal.

Ms. Donoghue manages to put a human narrative to ancient headlines, diary entries and court records that bring the relationships their character have with the people around them into distinctly modern relief.  With what must be divine gift, Ms. Donoghue allows us to experience a moment in the lives of people affected by some of history’s greatest miseries:  slavery, war, rape, the beginning of animal rights, the ruggedness of law enforcement on the frontier, emigration and graft politics; and to live those moments as the people in them must have done, with only a peripheral awareness of the institutions that dictated their circumstance and a clear focus on the personal and selfish effects of the character’s immediate actions.

Each story, whether it’s of a German soldier sold to the British for the revolutionary war, of a zookeeper in Victorian England, a graverobber in turn of the century Chicago, a prospector in the gold rush or a sculptor in mid-century Canada has a main character whose life pivots in that moment.  Tempered perhaps by zeitgeist, the questions that face Donoghue’s characters are the questions that face each one of us.  Are you telling the truth?  Are you helping the people you can?  Are you dupporting the friends you love?  Are you doing what’s right, when it’s not easy?  Are you tolerating anyone else’s inability to do the above? It’s clear to TNR that those are the questions Emma Donoghue asks of  the characters in her histories, and those are the questions that bind those characters to the present-day reader.

In fact Ms. Donoghue is explicit in her afterword about her choices of story and theme.  It is a rare book that the author feels so close to that she wants to send a special message to prospective readers, and then leave a reader who has finished the book with so clear an explanation of her choices.  Only writing this personal can stay in a reader’s mind for days afterward, the images of various stories flashing up as if they were part of one’s own memory.

The themes in this book might be difficult for some to read, there are travesties of personal rights and sacred relationships in every story.  Perhaps some reviewers would find the exposure of Ms. Donoghue’s thoughts and writing choices too personal and self-indulgent.  This reader was honored to be “allowed into” Ms. Donoghue’s view of her fellow man.  This collection of stories is a thought provoking and inspiring work of art.