REPS Recommends … Astray

Annalisa Moretti graduated from Simmons College in 2013. Currently, she works at MIT Libraries in Curation, Preservation, and Reformatting Services. She is the Website and Social Media Coordinator for REPS.

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Image credit: Goodreads
Image credit: Goodreads

Have you ever come across an obscure reference in a collection and wondered what the story behind it was? A court record containing a mysterious crime, a letter referencing a lost child, a newspaper article with an unresolved story? It’s these sorts of peculiar incidents which history has almost forgotten that form the basis of the fourteen short stories which make up Emma Donoghue’s collection, Astray.

Donoghue, author of the acclaimed novel Room, has gathered together tales of people on the fringes of history and given life to the bare details outlined in the documents which are the only records of their existence. Astray concerns characters who are all in some form of transition. Therefore, the book is broken into three sections: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. Each story begins with a location and year, and ends with a short note in which Donoghue describes the documentary evidence that inspired her story.

For example, the first story, “Man and Boy”, takes us to nineteenth century London, into the mind of Matthew Scott, an elephant trainer employed by the London Zoo and the main caretaker of the famous elephant Jumbo. It details P. T. Barnum’s purchase of Jumbo and the ensuing controversy over the sale, as described in newspapers articles of the time. But it’s Scott’s and Jumbo’s deep affection and loyalty to each other, something too private and inaccessible for the London papers, which is Donoghue’s main concern.

Jumbo and Matthew Scott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons & Tufts Digital Library.
Jumbo and Matthew Scott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons & Tufts Digital Library.

Throughout Astray we become acquainted with a myriad of characters and settings, and it’s amazing how Donoghue convincingly brings to life some of these very disparate voices. “Last Supper at Brown’s”, set in Texas during the Civil War, reconstructs from newspaper articles and census records the tale of a slave and his master’s abused wife making a bid for freedom together. “Onward” delves into the letters of a famous author and philanthropist and focuses on one of the desperate families he tries to help. In “The Gift”, Donoghue follows, via the records of the New York Children’s Aid Society, the path of one of the many children sent away on the infamous Orphan Trains, and her biological mother’s desperate attempts to get her back. And in “The Lost Seed” we try to understand what lies behind some perplexing court records involving repressed passions and desperate loneliness among the early English inhabitants of seventeenth-century Nantucket.

I think that Astray holds a special sort of fascination for people like us — archivists and historians — because we are so used to puzzling over these enigmatic scraps of information. To see them brought to life and made three-dimensional by the trick of fiction is incredibly satisfying. In a way, it gets at the heart of what we do: preserve the record of yesterday and today so that at some point, others can try to understand what really happened.

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