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Book review: ‘Astray,’ by Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Room’

By Heller McAlpin,

The historical short stories in Emma Donoghue’s new collection, “Astray,” wander across centuries and continents, but they actually don’t stray far from this Irish-born writer’s preoccupations with captivity, sexual predation, prostitution and the grip of parenting. Donoghue is best known for her previous book, the heart-stopping novel, “Room,” about a young woman who gives birth and raises a small son while held captive in a bunker for seven years by a rapist. Readers looking for the visceral power of “Room” will find tastes of it, but in small, snack-size packages.

All 14 stories concern some sort of wanderer: a wife fleeing the Irish famine to join her suffering husband in Toronto; a black slave and his white “Missus” bolting from the nasty “Marse” in Civil War Texas; prospectors who strike an unexpected vein of mutual comfort (with faint echoes of “Brokeback Mountain”) in the snowbound Yukon goldfields; Chicago counterfeiters who hatch a harebrained plot to ransom Lincoln’s exhumed body for a jailed colleague’s release; and a lesbian couple losing each other to dementia after nearly six decades of living and making sculpture together in Toronto.

These are people who cross boundaries, whether geographic, moral, sexual or legal, and often reside outside the mainstream. Donoghue, like so many Irish writers before her, emigrated from her native Dublin — first to England to earn her doctorate in 18th-century literature and then to Canada. She explains in her illuminating afterword that she is fascinated by people who stray, “because they loiter on the margins” and offer an outsider’s perspective.

Donoghue slips into various periods with a costumer’s agility. But what is most impressive about these stories is her ability to plumb historical footnotes for timeless emotional resonance and reanimate “real people who left traces in the historical record.”

The most disturbing of these sobering tales is “The Hunt,” in which Donoghue dramatizes a grim incident from the American Revolution in which women and girls were rounded up and abused for days on end in Hopewell, N.J. To save his own skin, her fictional protagonist, a desperately homesick, 15-year-old German boy forced to serve in the British army, guiltily betrays a young farm girl he has befriended, leading her to his company’s barracks. The story powerfully addresses several issues that remain timely: child soldiers, rape as a war crime and victims who, in turn, victimize.

In “Onward,” set in London in 1854, Caroline Thompson struggles to maintain middle-class gentility despite receiving two or three male “visitors” daily to support her younger brother and 2-year-old daughter: “She can’t cut down any more than that and still make the books balance. No strangers, no boors; she has her standards.” Like Ma in “Room,” Caroline is struck by the paradox that her child is “the best thing in her life,” even though “sprung from the worst.” When her brother suggests they appeal to a “very distinguished gentleman” for help, they’re spurred by visions of “a fresh start!” like characters in Chekhov. Still, Caroline worries: “Is she deluding herself that she could be anything but what she is?”

In a questionable move, Donoghue saves the most intriguing and significant aspect of this story for her endnote: The “distinguished gentleman” — who did, in fact, come to Caroline’s assistance — was Donoghue’s favorite novelist, Charles Dickens. Donoghue explains that she kept Dickens out of her tale because she feared that “dropping such a famous name can be distracting.” Although it may well have shifted the emphasis, it also would have heightened its import.

“The Gift” is another story of a mother’s sacrifice for love. In 1877, an impoverished young Jersey City widow is forced to leave her baby with the New York Children’s Aid Society while she finds her feet. Donoghue tells this poignant tale of maternal longing via dueling letters to the society, written by both the girl’s mother and the couple who adopted her, each pleading their case over some 20 years. “Who better to love her than her own mother whose only crime was poverty?” Sarah Bell writes. The adoptive father counters, “It shows heart that the mother has inquired, but there is no question of return like some parcel.”

Donoghue’s endnote again supplies information (gleaned from census reports) that takes us beyond the scope of her story. These fascinating postscripts enhance the stories, like bonus features on DVDs. Besides satisfying our curiosity for what really happened, they offer a peek into the writer’s craft, highlighting the constraints of the short-story form while unveiling Donoghue’s sources and what she chose to accentuate or omit. Yet their cumulative effect is somewhat akin to visiting an art museum and realizing that you are spending as much time reading the exhibition labels as looking at the art. Our attention never wanders while reading the stories in “Astray,” but the explanatory addenda leave us with an unsettling sense of what’s missing.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR and The Washington Post, among other publications.

ASTRAY By Emma Donoghue Little, Brown. 275 pp. $25.99

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