Reading Journal 8 – Words Gone Astray
Sometimes what makes a book important to me, or even remarkable, is not only the story told, or in this case, the stories told, but the consequences of the telling. One of my favorite writers is Louise Erdrich whose characters are all unique to her novels alone and come from her own imagination. I always come away from her novels marveling at the who of the characters and what they have done. Emma Donoghue has done that for me in her collection of short stories, Astray — but these characters are not made up; only their lives and their stories have come under the prevalence of Donoghue’s imagination. Somehow — and maybe because the characters actually existed — these imagined events, in the hands of this skilled writer tell me not only of their lives; but I myself am found out.
The stories in this collection are about people who have gone astray. Now we might first think of “astray” in its moral sense, but although there are more than a few moral missteps here and there by characters as disparate as sculptors, miners, politicians, slaves, and even bad cooks, Donoghue writes mostly of miles strayed, whether across oceans or across borders, national or state, even over a period of centuries. It is her imagination that lifts a few words from an obscure obit or old news item and turns them into weirdly, poignant stories that have sticking power.
This “Reading Journal” is not a book review. I mean, yes, I think Astray is a wonderful book, one that a whole lot of people ought to go right out and buy and read — you will have to buy the book because it was published in 2007 and it is probably no longer available in many libraries.
How did Astray find me out? I’m not quite sure, and although I’ve never crossed an ocean for the purpose of immigration (tourist travel does not count) I have moved across a state line. Ah, indeed, that is what her writing has done, made me wonder about where or even when I, too, have strayed. If one lives long enough one will stray, if only in the imagination. Thinking about that right now I realize that since very young, I have strayed. On my own, I moved out of the home I grew up in. It’s true, a child can move out of a house into a safer place to call home without ever changing address and not realize it for years. Travel can vary. We can move in many directions. I moved into a state of marriage and then out of it and into and out of different jobs and into and out of homes, full and empty. I did travel to Canada to meet a friend with whom I strayed into a very different and uncharted land. Finally, with all the offspring sprung off, I moved out of the western state my ancestors had not left for more than five generations.
The movements of Donoghue’s characters, and the actions taken to cause or justify the moves, are dramatic, often dangerous, criminal, secretive, noble and ultimately, as in the case of “What Remains,” quite, almost ordinary. It is this story of two female sculptors, immigrants from the U.S. to Canada, who, in their old age move into a nursing home where one of them has recently traveled into the unmapped territory of dementia, that finally, for me, rings all the bells that give all the other miles strayed a collective meaning.
The book has an afterword as powerfully written as any of the stories preceding it. The author goes beyond her own travel sharing; her words are almost an invitation to readers to look into our own lives, maybe a suggestion to see if we, too, might have strayed. At least that’s how I read it and, thank goodness, by our own life experiences, we get to read into any book whatever is available to each of us in its contents.
This morning, after finishing Astray, I am not so much looking back as looking at right now. How the hell did I get here? I look down at Donoghue’s book, the laptop propped against my bent knees while my back is supported by a stack of bed pillows, and these thoughts, these words, prevent me from leaving my bed. I should get up, make the bed, take my morning meds, start my day. Instead, I settle back. More words. When I was very young I made up night stories to take me unafraid into sleep and when older I made up stories (and wrote some down) behind a closed bedroom door to pass the time between coming home from school and dinner. I wrote poems to make sense of what felt solitary and unspeakable. It has always been the words, words to be read or written, words to stop me in my tracks or to move me out of my own way and, if lucky, astray. This morning I am, and am not, that same girl. In fact, I have started my day. If ever there were morning prayers that needed saying, these words will have to suffice. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Emma Donahue: Room; Slammerkin; The Sealed Letter; Kissing the Witch; Life Mask; The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits; Hood; Touchy Subjects; The Passions Between Women; Inseparable, Desire Between Women in Literature; Stir-Fry; We are Michael Field; Poems Between Women; Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel; Landing; Three and a Half Deaths; Ladies and Gentlemen, a Play.