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On the margins — among the restless

Published November 5, 2012 3:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Why is this home?" Emma Donoghue, the award-winning author of Room, asks in her groundbreaking new collection of linked stories about our restless search for belonging, whether it's to a place, a person or even a cause. Taking her jumping-off points from real-life events recorded in books, letters or newspaper clippings, Donoghue delves into why and how we stray across boundaries of sex, race and even species in order to find our place in the world.

While Room kept the action enclosed in one claustrophobic space, Astray zips across the globe, from 1882 London to 1967 Ontario. The book is separated into three distinct sections, "Departures," "In Transit" and "Arrivals and Aftermaths," and at the end of each story, there's a brief explanation of the true-life historical underpinnings of each tale.

But Donoghue also includes an Afterword, which acts as a kind of SparksNotes commentary, further exploring and illuminating how she discovered the history of each story, why she was interested in it and how she chose to shape the narrative. "Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways," she writes. "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."

So off we go across the map, gladly following Donoghue wherever she intends to lead us. Some of the stories are already fully formed in history, like the entrancing opening story, "Man and Boy," which comes from daily reports in the Times of London, and showcases the interspecies bond between the famous Jumbo the Elephant and his keeper. Man and elephant are really each other's family, a matched pair, and when the pachyderm is sold to Barnum's circus in America, the keeper cannot imagine not going along, because what is he without his elephant — and vice versa?

The letters of Charles Dickens give rise to the moving "Onward," about a single mother forced into prostitution to make ends meet. Letters again play a part in the luminous "Counting the Days," one of the book's most moving stories, about love and a marriage, "stretched like a tendon across a wide ocean," as the husband struggles to survive in cholera-infested St. Lawrence, while he waits for his wife to make her passage to him on a ship from Belfast.

As in any collection, some of the stories are more successful than others. In what is perhaps the best story, "The Gift," set in Jersey City in 1877, a destitute, desperate young mother believes she is temporarily giving up her daughter to the notorious Orphan Trains, to provide her a better life. But then the family that takes the girl determines to make her their own, rationalizing that she's "young enough to forget all that has gone before."

But other stories seem not quite fully formed. "The Long Way Home," about a notoriously crazy woman who brings a prospector back to his family, reads more as amusing anecdote. There's never a sense of what really makes this woman tick, especially when the endnote intimates that she was later committed to an insane asylum. How and why, we want to know.

"Daddy's Girl," about a daughter discovering her father was a woman, has a tantalizing premise, but it also feels more like an appetizer, rather than a full meal, because we never really understand why her father disguised himself as he did.

How do we choose what we choose when we've gone astray? How much can we endure? "The Hunt," set in 1776 New Jersey, offers up a horrifying tale of young soldiers who rape in the name of war, which is as much of its time as it is devastatingly modern, its message about victims, violence and choosing a side as painful as a punch. "Snowblind" inhabits the world of the 1896 prospectors who keep talking in the icy cold just so "they'd know they hadn't died."

From England, Canada and the United States, Donoghue has created a restless world of travelers, finders and seekers, as well as a book that is an interactive narrative hybrid, one that gets us lost in other lives, that probes our history, that reveals the artist behind the work and that ultimately shows us something fresh, unsettling and enduring about ourselves.