The characters in Emma Donoghue’s short story collection come from all walks of life: a German mercenary in revolutionary New Jersey trying his best to fit into his British regiment, a middle class British woman struggling to support her family, and a mother trying to find her daughter after a New York charity places her on an orphan train.
What brings these characters together is their search for a direction–whether a quest for a home, a family, a purpose, a fortune, a truth–hence the title, Astray. However, aside from the lack of settlement, the characters are often faced with a moral dilemma and finding themselves on the wrong side of right. That German mercenary? His regiment is terrorizing women up and down the state of New Jersey. That mother who lost her daughter? She had given that daughter to an orphanage, which sent her to a family in Iowa (of course!) that doesn’t want to give her up.
Donoghue’s fictional wanderers are inspired by historical events, people, and places. She wrote most of the stories after stumbling on interesting newspaper articles, biographies, or collections of letters. She cites these resources at the end in a brief description of the historical background of each story. I found these explanations fascinating. What I loved about Astray, was Donoghue allowed me to do my own wandering, from page to page, visiting colonial New England, Victorian London, and the Yukon territory during the gold rushes. Writing fiction, Donoghue states in the afterward, allows her to “live more than one life, walk more than one path.” She adds “reading, of course, can do the same.”