Madeira Mondays: Astray by Emma Donoghue (Book Review)

‘Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray

I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.

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It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.

I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.

My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.

What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.

My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.

In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.

All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Historical Short Stories

When we think of historical fiction, we tend to think about novels. It seems like a collective decision was made, somewhere down the line, that fiction set in the past should be EPIC in its scope. That historical tales were best suited to sprawling tomes with many sequels. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good historical novel (I’m writing one as we speak!). And I understand the appeal of getting wholly immersed in another time period, which one can do with a novel: learning about the minutia of life, meeting a big cast of characters, covering several years etc. BUT there is also something to be said for the short story as a medium for exploring history too.

Why are short stories such a brilliant form for historical fiction?

Well, for one thing, they reflect the way that the past often comes to us, which is in brief, fragmented, incomplete bursts. An old photograph discovered in an attic. A torn out page from a diary. Pieces of historical evidence often provide tiny windows to another world, but so much is left unknowable. Similarly, short stories are tiny windows into another world. A brief flash, a glimpse, but with much that you have to fill in and guess for yourself.

Also, maybe I am greedy, but sometimes I would rather read a collection with many different settings and characters, rather than commit to a whole book with just one time period and one setting. Enter Karen Russell. One of my absolute favorite writers. She writes both short stories and novels and many of her stories take place in the past – whether that is the old American West, 17th century Greece, or 19thcentury Japan. Lots of her stories are set in the present too. But all of her tales have fantastical or magical realism elements to them and they are all ridiculously well written. I actually feel wiser after reading her stories, like I have understood something new about human nature. Or, at least, have recognized something that I had not thought about before.

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I was so excited to read her new collection last week – Orange World – and it exceeded my (very high!) expectations. So, for today’s ‘Madeira Mondays’, I wanted to point you towards some of my favorite, historical fiction stories by Karen Russell! Even though, regrettably, none of her short stories are set in 18th century America (Please write a story set in 18th century America, Karen! Please!!), lots of them explore other periods of American history and the American landscape. Here are four of her stories that I recommend reading ASAP.

1 – ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Russell is an American writer originally from Florida, and many of the stories in her first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, take place in a weird, heightened version of a Florida swamp. But she’s also clearly interested in the landscape of the American West and one of my favorite stories from that collection is titled: ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘.  The title suggests a historical document, that the story we’re about to read is one from a larger collection of children looking back on their experience moving out west. But this expectation is playfully subverted in the very first line when we release that our boy narrator has a father who is a MINOTAUR. Yup. A Minotaur. Half-man, half-bull.

Thus begins a story that is really about myths: the myth of the American West (versus the harsh reality of life there), the myth of the Minotaur, the myth of this particular Minotaur character who, our narrator tells us, was once a famous rodeo star, AND about how parents seem like myths to their children, until we start to see their flaws.

You can hear Russell reading the beginning of the story here, to see if it might be your cup of tea!

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2 – ‘Proving Up’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Russell’s second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is my personal favorite and there’s another story about the American West in it, although this one is much darker than ‘Westward Migration’. It is about the rapacious desire for land and ownership, and this dark greed manifests itself as a very dark force that threatens the characters, who are settlers on the American frontier. The ending is so sinister it took my breath away! Apparently it has also been turned into an opera.

3 – ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

This is a goofy story which is dear to my heart, about US Presidents reincarnated as horses. Yes. Horses.

I actually wrote about it for part of my PhD thesis, which looked at different iterations of John Adams in fiction, because Adams the horse is a central character in the story. He tries to lead the other Presidents-turned-horses to rebel and break out of the barn. Sure, it’s a silly and fun concept, but it’s really about legacy and what kind of ‘afterlife’ these Presidents have in our imaginations. So it’s not so much ‘historical fiction’ as fiction ABOUT history. It’s also funny as hell and insightful.

4 – ‘Black Corfu’ from Orange World and other stories

Okay, so this story is definitely historical, but not set in America. The setting is the island of Corfu, 1620. I included it on this list because it is my favorite story from her latest collection and I’ve read it twice already. This story is about an ambitious, intellectual physician whose job it is to cut the hamstrings of corpses so that they do not rise from the dead and become zombies. He once aspired to be a great doctor, but his dark skin color and his class have prevented him from rising in his profession. When rumors start to spread that a dead woman has been seen roaming the island, the doctor is blamed and chaos ensues.

This story, like all of her stories, is about many things at once. Its themes are super relevant to us today, although they are explored in a historical context: class, race, science, superstition, ambition and the power of fear.

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Have I convinced you to read her yet? I hope so! And I hope that you will enjoy these strange historical stories as much as I do.

Recommended Reading:

Orange World and Other Stories; Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (obviously!)

Voices Against the Wall: The Hilarious Terror of Karen Russell’s “Orange World and Other Stories” (in-depth review of Orange World and other stories) from the LA Times

‘Bog Girl’ by Karen Russell in The New Yorker (also featured in Orange World)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!