Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Astray by Emma Donoghue

I do not read much fiction, but I listened to an intriguing interview with Emma Donoghue on an NPR Books podcast recently. She spoke about her latest book, a collection of short stories titled Astray. I was charmed by the idea that Donoghue combs through archived documents, historical incidents, and even statistics to find subjects for her stories. Finding the recent book at my library, I brought it home and was rewarded with several mornings and evenings of good reading.

Being mostly a biographical and historical reader (though I also like science), I found Donoghue's short stories appealing. They dramatize times about which I have read, focusing on rare events, giving me new insights into the movements of people across oceans and continents. For example, I had not thought much about the range of emotions within families split by the Atlantic, when a husband preceded the family in immigrating to Canada. Loneliness was a given, but other factors, such as envy, insult, despair, and surrender, shaped the handwritten letters that passed slowly back and forth across the ocean. Having now read "Counting the Days," I now also wonder how many wives and children were not met at the wharves in the New World and what became of them.

Donoghue's reading must be wide ranging. Her stories in Astray go back to Cape Cod in1639 and up to Newmarket, Ontario in 1967. Locations include the goldfields in Alaska, Louisiana slave plantations, and row houses in London. After each she reveals the documents and books that gave her characters and settings. In the back of the collection, she includes an essay that further explains her interests and methods.

Looking at her bio, I see Donoghue's books are wide-ranging, too. I suspect they will be popular in libraries for many years.

Donoghue, Emma. Astray. Little Brown and Company, 2012. 274p. ISBN 9780316206297.

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