By Emma Donahue

(Little, Brown & Co., $25.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Emma Donoghue, 43, was born in Ireland and now lives in Canada. She has published fiction, literary history, anthologies and plays and has a Ph. D in 18th-century literature. She is probably best known to American readers for her international bestseller, “Room,” a harrowing novel whose story is told by a 5-year-old boy who has known no other world than the backyard shed in which he and he kidnapped – and repeatedly raped – mother live, trapped by the sadist who abducted her and fathered him. It was a New York Times Best Book of 2010 and a finalist for the Man Booker, Commonwealth, and Orange Prizes.

What is this book about?

In “Astray,” Donahue takes snippets of actual historical fact and spins stories that illuminate them. Each story is followed by the news account that inspired it All the protagonists have crossed borders of some kind, whether geographical or sexual, racial or legal, even the line between sanity and madness. A vengeful Puritan on Cape Cod, a fortune-hunter in 17th century New York, a Victorian prostitute in London, a pre-Civil War woman who wants to run off with one of her slaves, a poor woman forced to give up her child, a woman in New York in the 1900s who finds out the person she thought was her father was actually female – the subjects of Donahue’s 14 stories could easily have a whole novel to themselves.

Why you’ll like it:

Donahue has great empathy for her characters, and a treasure hunter’s eye for the golden nugget of historical fact that can spark a wonderful story. The little boy narrator of “Room” was utterly believable, and “Astray” gives readers a new group of compelling voices. Here is what Donahue has said about her penchant for finding great stories in historical records:

“What draws me back to the past, over and over, is its combination of the universal and the deeply strange; one minute you’re feeling that the narrator of a story set in the 1700s is more or less like you, but the next minute, you’re startled by the fact that their mindset (on, say, marriage or war) is a world away from yours. Something else that makes the past fertile ground for a writer is that the stakes are high: before the twentieth century, decisions were often literally life-or-death. My new collection, “Astray,” is all about travel – not tourism, but life-or-death journeys. In my mind’s eye all the different characters (from a Puritan of the 1600s, to a runaway slave in the Civll War, to a toddler adopted out West in the 1890s) file past me with the weary but strong-hearted look of migrants in any era: nothing, but nothing, is going to get between them and a better life. It’s the American dream, and a timeless human dream; that by changing place you can change everything, including who you are. Some of the research I did for “Room” was into how refugees cope with transitions …and that’s the theme that runs through “Astray” too: the extraordinary challenge of adaptation to a new world.”

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review  says: “The type of historical fiction in which an author takes actual people…and puts thoughts into their heads and words into their mouths can seem presumptuous, especially when the author is less intelligent and interesting than the person whose thoughts he is trying to imagine. This is not the case with Donoghue: her work…is sensitive and intuitive, and her narrative voice moves fearlessly between centuries and between genders…Donoghue displays a ventriloquist’s uncanny ability to slip in and out of voices…”

“Readers looking for the visceral power of “Room” will find tastes of it, but in small, snack-size packages…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,” says Heller McAlpin in the Washington Post.

“Donoghue’s affinity for yesteryear’s untold tales is charming, and her talent for dialect is hard to overstate, which is why it’s the first-person stories in ASTRAY that shine brightest….Each and every one of Donoghue’s characters leaves an impression,” says Time.

“…Donoghue’s characters face struggle or loss with determined grace; their situations are inherently dramatic, but the writing is smartly underplayed, refusing to hit hysterical high notes. What’s equally intriguing is that each story concludes with the account that inspired it, which lets readers see the leap from fact to fiction. VERDICT: Working in a different vein from the wrenching “Room,” Donoghue has created masterly pieces that show what short fiction can do,” says Barbara Hoffert in Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says:

Fourteen tales of people cut loose from their roots–voluntarily or not. …The short story can be a precious, self-enclosed form, but in Donoghue’s bold hands, it crosses continents and centuries to claim kinship with many kinds of people. Another exciting change of pace from the protean Donoghue.”

When is it available?

If it has not gone astray, this book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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