Astray (2012). This sequence of fourteen fact-inspired fictions about travels to, in and from North America, which I have been writing one by one over the past decade and a half, is my eleventh book of fiction. Astray is published in Canada by HarperCollins (where it got into the Canadian Bestsellers list), in the UK/Ireland/Aus/NZ by Picador, and in the US by Little Brown. The multi-voice audiobook from Hachette won an Earphones Award. Astray was shortlisted for the 2012 Eason Irish Novel of the Year and longlisted for the Story Prize, and is forthcoming in French and Dutch.
With the turn of each page, the protagonists of these stories go astray in various senses. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. Astray transports the reader from puritan Massachusetts to revolutionary New Jersey, from antebellum Louisiana to a 1960s Toronto highway, lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present.
‘The Lost Seed’ is a tragedy based on court records of sex crimes in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.
‘The Widow’s Cruse’ is inspired by a paragraph about a suddenly widowed woman, from a newspaper in 1730s New York.
‘The Hunt’ – shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize – is about a teenage soldier who unwillingly participates in attacks on local women during the American War of Independence.
‘Vanitas’ is about a girl in 1830s Louisiana who probes her cousin’s mysterious death.
'Counting the Days' is based on the 1840s correspondence of two emigrants from Northern Ireland to Canada.
‘Last Supper at Brown’s’ follows a slave and his mistress who conspire to murder their master in Texas in 1864.
‘Onward’ is suggested by several letters of Charles Dickens about a family he helped to emigrate to Canada.
‘The Body Swap’ is a noir piece about the gang of forgers who tried to hold Lincoln’s corpse to ransom in 1876.
‘The Long Way Home’ is based on a rumour about a hard-drinking, cross-dressing eccentric in 1870s Arizona.
‘Man and Boy’ is addressed by zookeeper Matthew Scott to his lifelong companion, Jumbo the Elephant.
‘Snowblind’ is a fictional tale of two young men who become goldmining ‘partners’ in the 1890s Klondike.
‘The Gift’ is inspired by letters to a New York adoption agency from the birth mother and adoptive father of a little girl.
'Daddy's Girl' is about the 1901 death of Murray Hall, a New York politico who turned out to be a woman.
'What Remains' imagines the old age of a sculptor couple, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle.
A personal note: Using the fiction-springboarding-from-fact method that I developed for my collection The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002), but focusing on North America and the theme of life-changing journeys this time, Astray is an oddly autobiographical book. Having emigrated twice, as I explain in the Afterword, I have a stake in these storylines. (It was my agent Caroline Davidson who persuaded me to write the Afterword; I was afraid it would come across as narcissistic but it seems as if critics and readers alike appreciate hearing how I came to these stories.) The working title of the collection was Strays (a genealogical term for people who end up far from home), but that sounded a bit too much like mangy puppies, so I finally settled on Astray, which has wonderful connotations of being a bit 'astray in the head', as we say in Ireland. My favourite of the stories is proabably 'Man and Boy', because of the novel challenge of writing what one review called a 'pachydermic bromance'.
To buy Astray:
‘A beautifully rendered collection of hauntingly vivid short stories… Most of the stories have the seeds of fascinating novels. But the mark of a great short story is how wholly satisfying it can be, spun exactly as it is. Canadian writer Alice Munro has the gift and so does the Irish-born Donoghue… Almost operatic in her ability to capture voices, her bountiful imagination allows Donoghue to cross borders and get under the skin of a wide cross-section of people. She could not have assembled a richer cast of characters. We sense Donoghue's compassion for all of them — even the least appealing… Gorgeously written and thoroughly engrossing, Astray captures the uncertainty and complexity of settling into unknown turf. The voices of her characters reverberate in our heads, long after putting the book down.’ - USA Today (4/4 stars)
‘Donoghue’s affinity for yesteryear’s untold tales is charming, and her talent for dialect is hard to overstate… Each and every one of Donoghue’s characters leaves an impression.’ - Time
‘Expanding her horizons far beyond the confines of her bestseller Room, Donoghue uses history to conjure 14 haunting tales that span continents and centuries… these seekers and their stories pull you in – and stir your heart.’ – People
‘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… Donoghue reveals them all, in their places of exile, with gentle yet devastating truth.’- The New York Times Book Review
‘What is most impressive about these stories is her ability to plumb historical footnotes for timeless emotional resonance… These fascinating postscripts enhance the stories, like bonus features on DVDs. Besides satisfying our curiosity for what really happened, they offer a peek into the writer’s craft.’ – Washington Post
‘Off we go across the map, gladly following Donoghue wherever she intends to lead us… a book that is an interactive narrative hybrid, one that gets us lost in other lives, one that probes our history, reveals the artist behind the work and that ultimately shows us fresh and that ultimately shows us something fresh, unsettling and enduring about ourselves.’ – San Francisco Chronicle
‘One senses cumulatively through this book the capacious curiosity of Emma Donoghue’s mind, and the breadth of her knowledge. An academic by training and a fiction writer by vocation, she is not only a marvelous researcher, but has the ability expertly to deploy the intriguing details she has uncovered… her exuberant intelligent is restless… Never dull, these stories illuminate worlds like a magic lantern… Donoghue’s imagination can alight upon almost anything and revivify it.’ – New York Review of Books
‘Can inhabit any kind of fictional character and draw us into even the most unfamiliar world with her deep empathy and boundary-defying imagination.’ - Newsday
‘Displays her mastery at inventing the speech of the most unlikely characters in this story collection. … With such ingenuity, Donoghue achieves the effect of creating magic and wonder in the real world. To follow Donoghue into the unknown is one of the most pleasurable experiences I can think of.’ - The Daily Beast.com
‘And what a trip it is. Told with pathos and humor, from diverse points of view, in authentic-sounding vernacular, the characters capture us with their hardscrabble lives, gender-bending surprises, money-making schemes, perilous exploits, and terrible losses… Considering the riches of the collection, wanting more is less a complaint than a compliment, especially when treated to such a menu of assorted delights.’ – Boston Globe
‘Masterful dramatization… these are wise, searching, often funny stories.’ – Globe and Mail
‘The stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray are so compelling they are almost guilty pleasures. Literary fiction is not supposed to be so naked in its appeal to curiosity.’ – National Post
‘Superb collection… The factual explanations that end each story add a further, raw dimension to the already powerful emotions here… Readers who avoid short stories for fear that they will be less ‘satisfying’ than novels should sweep doubts aside and read this book. It is a gem.’ – Sunday Times
‘Donoghue has a remarkable feel for period detail, able to shift effortlessly between continents, centuries, races and classes….She is a shape-shifter, a subtle, imaginative impersonator. What changes from book to book is no less than the style, the era and the author herself. But what unifies all her prose is an uncommon ability to animate a quirk of history, to uncover in her fiction the oddities that make real life so fascinating.’ – Financial Times
‘An ingenious collection of dark true-life tales… Donoghue’s method is inventive, generous and unusually fruitful… Astray is an essentially hopeful book. It shows the vast talent of a writer for whom every life has its glowing moments, which shine here, despite the dark truths told alongside them.’ –Telegraph
‘Her compassion is contagious. Whether or not their actual lives were even close to the experiences she has bestowed on them, her evocative writing, beautiful in its pared-down clarity, has a ring of truth… Each of the stories stands on its own but as sequence they build up an emotional momentum that enhances the impact of some utterly memorable fictions in which voices from the past assume a riveting immediacy.’ – Independent (Ireland)
Interview on The Takeaway, 27 November 2012, http://www.thetakeaway.org/2012/nov/27/blank-slate-american-identity-emma-donoghues-astray/
Claire Messud, 'Thank God You'll Never Be Beautiful', New York Review of Books, 22 November 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/nov/22/thank-god-youll-never-be-beautiful/?pagination=false
Interview on CBC, 'As It Happens', November 2012, http://www.cbc.ca/books/2012/11/emma-donoghue-on-astray.html
Interview on National Public Radio, 'All Things Considered', 26 October 2012, http://m.npr.org/story/161269222
Jimmy So, 'From the Essays of a Master of Presidential Biographers, Edmund Morris, to the Problems of the Poems of Octavio Paz and the Brilliant Strangeness of Emma Donoghue', 22 October 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/22/this-week-s-hot-reads-oct-22-2012.print.html
I just now came up from seeing Daddy.
I never walked in here without knocking before. His study is real cold; the back of his big chair is smooth like an icicle. I know every object in this room, but it is as if I have never stepped across the threshold before.
The newspaper folded on the desk says 18 January 1901. I still can't get used to it, this century I mean. It sounds most improbable.
Doctor Gallagher said he would have to show me if I couldn't take his word for it. But I've never seen Daddy without his necktie, even. I guess I always thought he was a modest kind of man. So when it came to it, today, I just couldn't bear to lift the sheet that went up to his chin.
Daddy’s face looked kind of peeved, like when Momma was alive and dinner went on too long and I could tell he wanted to stroll down to the saloon on Seventh and smoke a great black cigar.
He looked the same last Saturday, the last time I saw him – only he seemed clammy, then, somehow. Was it the pain? It strikes me now, he must have known; he must have felt it coming. Nobody ever could pull the wool over Daddy's eyes. He called me in - he was sitting right here in this chair - and he told me to go stay with my friends in Brooklyn for a week. No reason given, no questions to be asked. No, I wasn’t to call home on the telephone; he didn’t want to be disturbed. 'Get on, girl.' I thought it must of had something to do with politics.
I reckon we ought to bury him right away. Before the reporters burst in and get a look at him.
Why couldn't Doctor Gallagher have kept his big mouth shut and let a man rest in peace? I don't see that the public's got a right to know. There was a fellow from the New York Times on the stairs five minutes ago, hollering though the keyhole.'Miss Hall, Miss Hall. Could you tell? How long have you known? Are you in the dimes now, Miss Hall? Is it true you’ve netted a cool million?’
All today I have kept a good hold on myself, because I am known to my friends as the sort of girl you can rely on, but now it is all starting to shake loose. My mind runs round in little circles. I feel banished from my old life.
My name is Miss Imelda Hall, known as Minnie. I am twenty-two years of age. I help – used to help - my Daddy, Mr Murray Hall, run an employment agency at 145 Sixth Avenue. My Daddy was an important man in New York, a pillar of the Democratic Party.
All in all, I am glad I didn't lift the sheet. There are some things you shouldn't look at, because what are you supposed to do afterwards? Like that thing I saw once in a trashcan behind the market, I believe it was a baby.
Oh my good Jesus.
If Daddy was here now he'd give Bridget a smack around the head for letting the fire go out.
He left his hat on his desk. Inside it's black with grease.
Why, what a fool I was, we all were. Daddy's friends used to complain that all the years they were going bald as taters, he never lost a hair off his head. And another thing, his face is always smooth, as if he's come up directly from the barber's, even when I know for a fact he's only just got out of bed.
I should have wondered about that, shouldn't I? But a girl's not inclined to set to wondering, when it's her own Daddy and he doesn't care for being stared at. And he never seemed like anything but your regular poker-playing whisky-drinking good fellow. Not exactly handsome, but a real charmer with the ladies.
It turns my stomach.
How could Momma? How could she? Unless she didn’t know. Could that be true? Could you be married to someone without the slightest idea who they were? And what about all his other girls, don’t tell me none of them knew. I can’t decide who’s the real deviant.
I am sitting here in Daddy's study at Daddy's desk in Daddy's big leather chair, and any minute now he is going to walk in here and catch me.
I know what he would rather I did. 'Put a match to the whole damn lot,' he'd say; 'No use rooting around in a dead man's papers.'
But the thing is, Daddy, I'm a little curious. And this is not your private study anymore. You're not really going to come across the landing and find me poking about, are you? I can do what I please now.
The thing is, quite above and beyond the thing itself, this changes everything. For instance, if Daddy's not my Daddy, who is? I just can't see a fine upstanding woman like Momma carrying on with another... with a man. Did he tell her, 'Go right ahead, Cecilia, don't mind me'? I just cannot see Daddy putting up with that kind of malarkey.
I'm counting on him to have left something, some kind of clue. Surely it would be here if it was anywhere, wedged in one of these bursting drawers or pigeonholes, slipped in between these old campaign handbills and Democratic Party Meeting notices and postal cards to 'good old Murray Hall'.
Something you never got around to mentioning, something you always wanted to say. You and Momma did plan to tell me, didn't you? I expect you just didn't quite know how to broach it. Surely you didn't reckon to let me go my whole life through not knowing who in the heck I am?
This must be it. I knew it would be here. So simple, a folded paper with 'Minnie' on the outside: I can hardly bear to open it.
'Gone to hustings, home late, don't wait dinner.'
Damn him. His notes were never more than ten words long.
This desk is full of the junk of a whole lifetime. My stomach is growling now. I’m dizzy, adrift, lost in a sea of old papers. But what I'm looking for must be in here somewhere.
He always said I had Mamma's eyes and his nose. The Senator used to say, 'Isn't she the dead spit of her Daddy?'
I must have been adopted.
Now I am making a right mess and papers are falling on the rug but I don't care. It has got to be written down, surely? Where I was born, how they got me. There must be a letter or a certificate or a photograph even. Something with my name on.
Could be my name is not my name, of course. It could be staring me blue in the face and I'd never recognize it. Could be I had another name before they adopted me and turned me into Miss Imelda (Minnie) Hall. Maybe I am not an Imelda but a Priscilla or an Agnes. And of course I am not a Hall either. God knows what I am. A stray, a foreigner? Come to think of it, I've got no proof I'm twenty-two years old. Could be it's all lies.
I am not rightly anyone or anything now. Just like a bit of orange peel floating down the gutter.
It makes me shake to think of it. Not about my name so much as about Daddy. When I think of him now I could just rip him to pieces.
I am quite an independent person. My friends and I go all over the city on the subway trains. I have been up the New York World Building, 22 stories high, and seen a moving picture at Koster and Bial’s. (It was a man sneezing, that’s all, but still.) Yet Daddy has always been able to cut me down to size and make me feel like a little idiot girl. When the cycle craze started and I longed for a machine of my own, he said I was too young, and even when I turned twenty-one and asked again he said surely I wasn’t so immodest as to want to pedal around town in bloomers. Then the other day I came down all ready for a party and Daddy made a very cutting remark about the neck of my bodice. I told him it was all the rage but he said I might as well serve up my bosoms on a plate for the fellows. He made me go right upstairs and change my whole ensemble and I was late for the party. And to think that all this time, all these years - well, there's no other way to put it, but Daddy had bosoms himself.
What kind of monster plays a trick that lasts a lifetime? What kind of woman decides to be a man?
These cards are so old they've gone yellow. 'Best of wishes from all the boys to good old Murray Hall.' 'With the compliments of State Senator Barney Martin to his old friend Murray Hall.' 'Merry Christmas, dear Murray, from all your pals on the Committee.'
I never could stay awake when Daddy talked Tammany Hall. Who’d promised his vote in which ward, and which man could be trusted, and which other fellow would slit your throat as soon as look at you. How Daddy'd started out as a nobody fresh off the boat and now he was a professional bondsman, but best of all, he was rich in friends, and what else could a man rely on in this world?
There was that one time Daddy got wild at Skelly's on Tenth Avenue and whipped a policeman in the street, ended up in the station house. But his buddies squared it in the right quarters, and he was home for breakfast. Momma had been worried near out of her mind. But the Democrats can fix anything in New York. Sometimes it takes a bribe or a riot or maybe even a body in the river, I've heard, but the job gets done. You keep on the right side of the Tammany Hall men, Daddy used to say, you wear a permanent smile.
I wonder what they would say if they could see him now. If they lifted the sheet, as I cannot bear to do. I don’t need to lift it; after all, I know what I’d see. Like looking in some funhouse mirror.
When I went over to draw the curtains just now I could hear those jackal reporters down below, shouting up at me. 'Miss Hall, Miss Hall.' But I will not talk to them. They put words in a person's mouth.
Yes! Here it is in my hand: 'The Last Will and Testament'.
It doesn't take long to read.
Well I guess I needn't worry about anyone marrying me for my money. Oh Daddy. Was any of it true?
It's not that I'm not grateful for the two hundred dollars, but where's all the rest gone? What kind of deals did those friends of yours do? And I see that out of that sum I'm supposed to 'cause to be erected a suitable headstone over the grave of Cecilia, the deceased wife of the testator'. That is a sweet thought, Daddy, but what would a 'suitable headstone' for Momma say? I Married a Woman, Lord Forgive Me?
Momma will just have to move on over and make room; I surely can't afford two headstones if I'm to feed myself this winter. I bet she knew. She was a sweet-looking woman, was Mamma, even if she was twice Daddy's size. Now there is a queer thought: I don't expect a layperson can spot the difference between a man and a woman, after a few years in the grave, when you get down to the plain bones.
Daddy was never seen around the Lower West Side without some class of female on his arm. Younger than me, sometimes; even the maids who came to our office looking for a job. He just couldn't keep his hands off the opposite... I mean, girls. It saddened Momma so, she stopped speaking to Daddy years before she died.
But I've got to try to be merciful, I suppose. There's nobody else left to forgive him. I guess he had simply got to be a man's man, and a ladies' man, and every kind of man, so no one would suspect he was no such thing. Doing his best to fit in, play the game, when in Rome, that sort of thing. I bet he was sick when he tasted his first cigar, but he kept right on. And he got so he could drink his weight in beer and stand up under it too. As if he'd found a book on being a man and was set on following it page by page.
It strikes me now that I do not even know where Daddy came from. He sometimes used to talk about making the crossing, but he never said from where, exactly. Daddy didn’t care to be interrupted with questions when he was telling a story. His tales made the crossing sound such a hoot: all the farmers down in steerage green as grass, and the fiddler carrying on regardless. He had an accent, but not like anyone else’s I’ve known. Could it have been Ireland he started out from? Or Scotland?
I wonder now if it was an adventure, at first, or an escape? Was he hiding from somebody, the first time he put on a cap and a pair of trousers, or did he just like the feel of them? Could he have guessed it would be for always?
Daddy never said much about his life from before he crossed the ocean. Whatever I asked him, he claimed he couldn't remember. He liked to say that if you looked back you’d turn to salt. What a curious phrase, turn to salt. Did he mean tears? He once said there was nothing set his teeth on edge more than an emigrant snivelling for home.
Hedoesn't have a name now either, no more than me. I wonder what he was born. Mary Hall? Jane Hall? Or no kind of Hall at all?
I almost set to laughing when I think of calling Daddy by a girl's name, and him in no position to stop me. Oh Lord, I could cry to think of him as a Nancy or Eliza.
I don't even know how old he was when he arrived. I see him at the rail of the ship, heading past the Statue of Liberty, but his face is blank. What is he wearing? I wish I could be there, a foot away, looking at the skyline. Just for a moment. Just to ask why it’s so bad to be a woman.
I guess I could have been a better daughter. I used to get uppity with him when he would forget his key and haul on the bell when he crashed in at two in the morning, especially after Momma died. Daddy used to say I'd inherited his temper and Momma's sulks together, but now it turns out my faults are all my own.
No wonder he drank. Doctor Gallagher says it was a cancer in the left breast. He says Daddy must have been sick for years and years, and never said a word; the cancer had had worked right through to the heart. It sounds like woodworm, I can't help thinking, or like when the mice get into the cheese. What a ninny I was; I thought all those books on medicine Daddy collected were some sort of hobby. I saw him take a spoonful from a bottle once but he said it was cod-liver oil. Five years of being eaten away, for fear of being found out.
The papers are all in one big heap now, and I'm so cold I had best go down to the kitchen. There's nothing left to read. Only one last drawer that comes unstuck with a shudder, and there's nothing in it but a bit of card at the back.
An old brown photograph: a girl with too many ringlets. One of his hussies, from the early days? That goes on the top of the pile, face down; I'll toss the lot in the range after supper.
It couldn't be.
I turn the picture up, and all of a sudden it changes; I see past the ringlets, into the face. It looks like Daddy dressed up as a girl, for a game. Eyebrows drawn together; a faint smile.
I have got his nose.
Well, he looked better in trousers. But I will tuck the picture into my pocket. I did not know before today that you can hate and despise a person and still love him on the other side of all that.
He is still my Daddy. Even if he is dead. And a woman.
Doctor Gallagher says 'she', now, when he remembers, and so do the reporters. But I won't, not ever. Daddy wouldn't like it.
According to the death certificate, Murray Hall died on 16 January 1901, was born around 1831, and so lived to be nearly 70. Born perhaps Mary Anderson, or Mary or Elizabeth Hall, Murray Hall was said to have come from Ireland, Scotland, or New York's Lower West Side. Hall's first wife died, or disappeared; the second marriage ended in estrangement after about seven, or perhaps twenty years. This jumble of facts and speculations comes from The New York Times (18 and 19 January and 20 March 1901), The New York Tribune (18, 20 and 29 January and 20 March 1901), Munzey's Magazine (1901, including pictures) and The Weekly Scotsman (9 February 1901).
Minnie (Imelda) Hall was only 22 when her famous father was posthumously exposed as female. One of the few things we know about Minnie is that she refused to talk to reporters. At the inquest she was prompted to refer to her father as ‘she’, but retorted, ‘I will never say she.’
‘Daddy’s Girl’ © Emma Donoghue Ltd. This story is excerpted from Astray (London: Picador, Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, and New York: Little Brown, 2012) and is not to be distributed without permission.