Astray is a collection of short stories themed around old newspaper clippings. In each, someone is adrift, out of sync with life, expecting one thing but getting another. They are really powerful stories in some cases.
The opener is about an elephant keeper whose charge is sold off to America, and his running conversation with his charge. It’s adorable. Less adorable but quite hard-hitting is the woman traveling with two small children, expecting to meet her husband in America, having been lucky enough to get passage out of famine Ireland.
Then there’s the Revolutionary War story, “The Hunt,” which covers a side of troop behavior that doesn’t make it into patriotic celebrations. Many of these stories have that undercurrent theme, the “alternate reality” feeling that makes them good fiction. So when you find out each is based on actual events, with just some ideas and feelings and motivations colored in between the lines sketched in by history, it’s a powerful thing. This is history with a small h, and therefore more accurate.
And of course it’s no small feat to pack an equal wallop of caring about a fully developed character in less than 10,000 words. Donoghue’s words are each carrying their own weight. She’s one of those rare gestalt writers, whose sum exceeds the parts. She makes you feel as though you know someone well, even though you’ve read two sentences about her.
An enthusiastic shout out for this book; you don’t have to be interested in history to enjoy the many dramas unfolding in this compact volume’s pages. Big things come in little packages.