10/29/2012 11:58 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Emma Donoghue's 'Astray': The Book We're Talking About This Week

Astray by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, $25.99
October 30, 2012

What is it about?
It's a collection of short stories that have little in common aside from being rooted in real events and concerning characters who have, as the title implies, gone astray in some way. Most stories are based on events that occurred in North America's earlier years, featuring emigrants, miners and slaves, and all are concluded with tidbits of historical fact provided by Donoghue.

Why are we talking about it?
Donghue's 2010 novel, Room, made quite a splash for the author's ability to so compellingly capture the voice of a five-year-old in captive. We were interested to see if her third-person narration skills translated well into the oftentimes more complicated vernacular of adults hailing from different eras and different corners of the globe ("Last Supper at Brown's" is about a slave who killed his master, and "The Body Swap" is told from the perspective of a grave robber in Chicago). In our opinion, she succeeded.

Who wrote it?
Emma Donoghue is an Irish writer who now lives in Canada. In addition to her novels and short story collections, which have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and have won the Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction, she has also written plays and historical criticism. She is the youngest of eight children, and Astray is dedicated to her seven "far-flung" siblings.

Who will read it?
Fans of Canadian writers, historical fiction, and (not necessarily cohesive) short story collections.

What do the reviewers say?
The Telegraph: "Donoghue’s method is inventive, generous and unusually fruitful; each story ends not with the pivotal incident her vivid fiction describes, but with an authorial postscript detailing the facts of the matter."

Entertainment Weekly: "Themes of wanderlust and displacement help span the continents and centuries, and each story comes with an afterword that explains its historical roots. A few tales plod along like showcases for the author's research, but others, such as one about Chicago grave robbers in 1876, feel like discoveries, stories that were waiting to be told."

Publisher's Weekly: "The 14 stories are all short (many too short), and by the time they’ve set up the circumstances and the era, they’re almost done, and we’re leaving characters we know as creatures of a time and place rather than individuals. When Donoghue establishes a distinct voice and person, the stories are vivid, curious, and honest."

Impress your friends:
One story in the collection titled "The Gift" is a fictional series of letters written by Sarah Bell, who has sent her daughter West on an "orphan train." The orphan train movement occurred from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century, and involved hundreds of thousands of vagrant children being sent from populated cities to more rural, Western states. This phenomenon inspired Norman Rockwell's painting, "Good Boy (Little Orphan at the Train)".

Opening line:
"Off your tuck this morning, aren't you? That's not like you. It's the chill, perhaps."

Notable passage:
"She jangling her keys like a rattle. She know she ain't quality, she still got laundress hands. She come down to lock and unlock her stores before most every meal, sometime I reckon she come to the kitchen just so's not to be upstairs with Marse. Same thing, she work the garden with her India rubber gloves on, I's a-digging and a-toting and a-watering, days pass. We'uns don't talk much, we'uns know what we doing."