Within these fourteen stories, Emma Donoghue traces paths overland and oversea, navigating the different ways we can go astray, journeys of the heartWithin these fourteen stories, Emma Donoghue traces paths overland and oversea, navigating the different ways we can go astray, journeys of the heart and mind as much as the body. Immigrants and the immigrant story feature prominently, but these stories aren't confined to the immigrant experience. Each one is inspired by a real person, a real story - a clipping from an old paper, a museum piece, an incident in someone else's non-fiction work. From England to Canada to the United States, these stories canvass an essential element of the human condition, showing just how familiar and yet dissimilar our experiences are.
In "Man and Boy" (London, 1882), Matthew Scott chats to his charge, Jumbo the elephant, as he tries to get the elephant onto the ship that will take him to America where he will work in a circus. The running dialogue in Scott's voice is yet another showcase of Donoghue's impressive ability to capture the individual and create a distinctive voice.
"Onward" (London, 1854), introduces us to Caroline, a young orphaned woman who was once middle class but has fallen on hard times. To help keep her younger brother Fred and her toddler daughter Pet, she takes in gentlemen callers two or three times a day, trying to protect her child and her brother from the reality of their circumstances. A chance arrives when Fred tells her of an important man who helps people like them emigrate to Canada and Australia, and Caroline must decide whether she will leave the safety of predictability and shelter for the unknown.
The lawyer in "The Widow's Cruse" (New York City, 1735) thinks he's struck gold when a naive, beautiful young widow comes to him for help in claiming her husband's wealth after a report of his death en route to Connecticut. But Huddlestone learns the hard way never to underestimate a woman, or be led astray by his own narrow opinion of their intellect (or his greed).
In "Last Supper at Brown's (Texas, 1864), Donoghue recreates the day when Mrs Brown ran off with the last household black servant, Negro Brown, after Marse Brown, head of the household and a man much disliked, decides to sell him. Mrs Brown sees her own opportunity to leave him when Brown tells her his intention to run away, and is complicit in the plan to make sure Marse can't follow them.
Jane Johnson and her children are on their way to rejoin her husband, Henry, in Montreal in "Counting the Days" (Gulf of Saint Lawrence, 1849). Treasured letters, much read, link them together across the seas, but Jane is unaware that on the day she arrives, Henry fell ill with cholera and she's all alone, again.
Two young, inexperienced gold prospectors in "Snowblind" (The Yukon, 1896), struggle through their first winter in their hut beside a creek, scrounging for gold dust. Stories of people striking big come in often enough to motivate everyone to keep at it, despite the times they nearly die. This story is written without dialogue punctuation, and Donoghue writes so well, I never even noticed till now!
In "The Long Way Home" (Wickenburg, Arizona, 1873), weather-beaten, trouser-wearing Mollie Sanger goes into the bar to drag out Jensen, who left his pregnant wife and children at their dig to spend their meagre gold haul on booze, ties him to his horse and takes him back. Mollie, like all the characters in Astray, was a real woman, and ended up in a mental institute, probably because of her habit of wearing men's clothes.
The plot to abduct Abraham Lincoln's body from his tomb to hold for ransom against the release of a master counterfeiter from jail is the object of "The Body Swap" (Chicago, 1876); little does the small group of men know but not all of them can be trusted. The details of what happened to the characters, in particular Morrissey, after the events of this story are as interesting as the story itself.
If there was one story that made me want to cry more than all the others, it was "The Gift" (Jersey City, 1877). A common practice of the time was to leave young children with the Children's Aid Society when a family fell on hard times; the CAS would adopt the children out to prosperous families in the country, never mind that the parents want the children back. Sarah Bell is a widow struggling to provide for her baby, Lily May Bell. Her attempts to get the child back, especially after she's been farmed out to Mr and Mrs Bassett, a sheriff and his wife, become increasingly desperate as the years go by. Told in letters from Sarah and Mr Basset, the story of Lily May who never knew her real mother really tore at my gut.
In "The Lost Seed" (Cape Cod, 1639), we read the words of Richard Berry, who writes in the margins of his Bible, speaking of the sin and fornication he sees around him in his Puritan settlement, the people he denounces for wickedness, until eventually he recognises that it is he who, sexually repressed, yearns for a man's touch. This is a finely tuned story, another voice cunningly wrought, a place and time skilfully rendered.
Benjamin Hammon said to Teague Joanes that Sarah Norman told his wife I was an old killjoy.
It matters not.
Sin creeps around like a fog in the night. Too many of us forget to be watchful. Too many have left their doors open to for the Tempter to slip in. I puzzle over it as I lie on my bed in the darkness, but I cannot telly why stinking lusts and things fearful to name should arise so commonly among us. It may be that our strict laws stop up the channel of wickedness, but it searches everywhere and at last breaks out worse than before.
I consider it my pressing business to stand sentry. Where vice crawls out of the shadows, I shine a light on it. Death still seizes so many of our flock each winter, we cannot spare a single soul among the survivors. Better I should anger my neighbor than stand by and watch the Tempter puck up his soul as the eagle fastens on the lamb. Better I should be spurned and despised, and feel myself to be entirely alone on this earth, than that I should relinquish my holy labor. They call me killjoy, but let them tell me this, what business have with joy? What time have we to spare for joy, and what have we done to deserve it? [pp.180-181]
"Vanitas" takes us VAcherie, Louisiana in 1839, where fourteen year old Aimée wiles away her days on the family plantation, stealing up to the attic between lessons with her Tante Fanny, where she discovers a trunk of exquisite dresses that once belonged to her cousin Eliza, who died while on holiday in France. The truth of what happened to Eliza and why her aunt never leaves her room is life-changing for Aimée.
In "The Hunt" (Hopewell, New Jersey, 1776), we learn about the practice of the European soldiers of raping - often en masse - the girls and women of the area, through the eyes of a fifteen year old soldier from Germany, who is being forced to prove himself a man by forcing a woman. As one of the soldiers puts it, "I hate the thought of leaving a single maidenhead in the fucking State of New Jersey." (p.219) It's chilling, and as a woman, easily the scariest story here. I had no idea the practice was, well, a practice, and so systematic. The British troops certainly didn't win anyone over.
When Doctor Gallagher dies, leaving his daughter Imelda "Minnie" Hall an orphan in "Daddy's Girl" (New York City, 1901), Minnie discovers that her father is not really her father at all. Perhaps he is actually her mother; they do share some features, after all. What's clear is that "daddy" is not a man, and Minnie is forced to rethink everything she thought she knew.
In "What Remains" (Newmarket, Ontario, 1967), two once-renowned female artists originally from the States are spending their last days in a nursing home in Ontario. Florence Wyle does her best to help her close friend Queenie (France Loring) to remember the past, but the younger woman is senile and muddled as dementia sets in. It's left to Florence to recall their life together, since they met in a modelling class sixty years ago. When she recounted the commission Queenie worked on to mark the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way (a major highway that goes through Toronto), I immediately perked up my mind. She carved a lifesize lion at the entrance - it has since been moved, and is now in the park between Lake Shore Road and the lake, but you can see it as you leave Lake Shore to get onto the QEW - and it is very impressive. I'm even more taken by it now I know a bit about who made it (when do we ever think about the artist behind a sculpture?).
Lastly, in the Afterword, Donoghue takes us through each of the stories and their connection to her running theme, "astray". But at the end of each story is a passage explaining the inspiration behind the story, and filling in some of the gaps - like what happened to the people later.
In each and every story, Donoghue displays her impressive literary talent, her ability at capturing unique voices, at sharing experiences in such a way that the people in these stories could be living and breathing right next to you as you read. Likewise I am impressed with the amount of research that must go into collections like this one, that covers different time periods - the historical details that enrich each story.
Astray is a beautiful collection of stories that are both uplifting and grim - gritty in that way of realism without being constrained by it; showing the true human experience in so many forms, revealing that essential truism that our lives are vivid patchworks of joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Whether you've been an immigrant yourself or not, you will be able to relate to these stories and characters, because threading its way through these stories that are at once familiar and strange, is that fine element of going astray, veering off course either through action or outside forces, of trying to find your way again, or a new way altogether. A must read for anyone looking for exceptional historical fiction by a truly gifted writer....more
In these six exquisitely crafted short stories, Canadian playwright Piatigorsky brings to life a moment in the childhood - or adolescence - of six infIn these six exquisitely crafted short stories, Canadian playwright Piatigorsky brings to life a moment in the childhood - or adolescence - of six infamous dictators. These aren't necessarily pivotal moments, or the moment when they decided, I know, I'm going to be a ruthless, bloody dictator when I grow up! Nothing so trite or ridiculous. Rather, they are moments that could easily be overlooked as everyday, mundane and typical, even, yet they are fascinating character studies highlighting childhood influences and the beginnings of a train of thought that will later have such devastating affect.
In "Tea is Better Than Pepsi", we meet a teenaged Idi Amin in 1946, who was president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. We meet him when he was working as an assistant cook for the King's African Rifles (a British colonial regiment, sending African soldiers to Burma and other places). A tall, broad-shouldered lad, he recalls living with his mother, Assa Aatta, an exiled Lugbara sorcerer, and the time when he was ten that she failed to cure a crazy woman who wore a skirt made of Pepsi bottles. Assa Aatta lost her esteemed reputation, and the army threw them out of the barracks, where they lived. Idi never forgave her for it, and saw her as a fraud ever after. On this day, though, he seizes a chance to prove himself and be recruited into the KAR - the beginning of his path to becoming Commander of the Ugandan army.
The second story, "A Plaything for the King's Superfluous Wives", introduces us to fourteen-year-old Saloth Sâr Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and dictator of Cambodia, in 1939. His sister, Roeung, works with the king's dancers, all minor wives who live in the royal compound, and he has a crush on one of them, Chanlina. The guards at the gate recognise him, and on the pretext of meeting his sister, Sâr makes his way to Chanlina's home, which she shares with two other young women and a baby. They're older than him, and converge on him like a toy, taking advantage of his pubescent hormones and ignorance.
In "The Consummation", set in 1908, fifteen-year-old Mao Tse-Tung is fighting with his father over his arranged marriage with woman Luo. A bookish, lazy boy, Tse-Tung capitulates only when his mother speaks to him, but he balks at consummating the marriage, depressed by woman Luo's lack of life and vacant look and his own fear of turning into his callous and violent father. He continues to struggle with notions of duty and familial respect as laid out by Confucius, and his fantasies of joining the bandits and having the kind of adventures his fictional heroes have. Finally, he has no chance of having a real marriage with woman Luo, when his father does what he failed to do.
The fourth story, "Lado's Disciple", introduces us to an adolescent Josef Stalin in 1908, when he was a scholarship student at an orthodox seminary in Tiflis, in his native Georgia. Many of the students there held secret study groups and read communist texts under the noses of the strict priests, including Soso. The story is a detailed glimpse into his life at the seminary, his thoughts about rebels he saw as heroes, and his bullying determination to be a leader of the other students.
In "Bottle Cap", we meet seventeen-year-old Rafael Trujilio in 1908, who later became president of his native country, the Dominican Republic. He is a dandy, whitening his skin with makeup, using perfume, and saving up money from his job at the morse code office to buy a new tie. He also has obsessive compulsive disorder, collecting bottle caps and arranging them just so, with a high degree of ritual. When his brother asks him to join him on a potentially lucrative cattle raid, Rafael finally agrees, but sets his brother up to be caught in revenge for destroying his precise piles of bottle caps.
[Rafael] cuts off Padre Ayala and heads towards his home, forgetting the fury of brother Fernando, María's chunky body and smooth skin, and even the omen of dots and dashes. This bottle cap must be integrated into his collection right away. Appropriate adjustments must be made. A failure to do so properly will cancel out the telegraphic omen, replacing that good portent with a violent and destructive one, which couldn't be cured by crushed oranges or sprinkled seeds, or any means other than old-fashioned patience, fortitude, and endurance. The prospect of failure makes him feel sick. A bad omen could mean cancer, tuberculosis, disasters of human or divine origin. [p.185]
The final story, "Incensed", trails a skinny sixteen-year-old Adolf Hitler over the course of a day in 1905. Sleeping in until the afternoon, dressing up in coattails, top hat and walking stick, he spends what little money he has on the opera theatre and the arts. He had spent time in Vienna and felt himself a sophisticate because of it, though he was rejected by the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna (twice). His widowed mother, Klara, is a timid, fearful woman, easily browbeaten by her eldest son, and he callously bullies his only friend, Gustl, into going with him to the opera. Adi has wild dreams and sees himself redesigning the plain buildings of Linz.
I'm a bit torn over this book. On the one hand, I am full of admiration, for the depth of research shown, for the fine layers of detail, and for such intricate character studies. I called these stories "exquisitely crafted" with good reason. On the other hand, though, I often struggled to truly connect with the stories, and the characters in particular - all the emotions were there, degrees of empathy, if not sympathy (just how sympathetic are some of these youthful characters, especially Tse-Tung, Soso, Rafael and Adi? I can't really sympathise with bullies and arrogant, selfish fools, and I'm sure I'm not meant to); but there was always a degree of distance.
This would be mostly due to the writing style. Cool, collected, present tense (I'm not a fan), very well-written but sometimes too descriptive, slowing the stories down and enabling my mind to wander. It was that weird mix of being fascinated, and yet slightly bored, all because of the slow pacing. The tone, the cadence, was just so steady and controlled, like a musical score that has a beat but no harmony. The measured pacing never changed, whether it was a paragraph of reflection, description or action, and that made the prose seem a bit rigid, even when it was poetical and insightful. It's a matter of what clicks with you on a personal level, and we don't have much say in that.
That's not to say that I wasn't impressed, because I was. I especially liked "Bottle Cap", which was one of those perfectly constructed short stories that delves into a character without telling you what to think all the time, and built up a backstory, context, and action, as well as framing a believable backdrop for someone who later had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands. I was also impressed with the story of Adi (Hitler), "Incensed", though of all the stories, this one was the one where you could really see a scary man in the making. The others, well those characters could have gone in numerous directions. Adi was a bit scary. In fact, I was reading the National Post's review which came out earlier today (26th October 2012) in which the reviewer likened the stories to gothic horror and monster stories, and the comparison immediately clicked with me. I hadn't thought of them in that way until then (it's not an obvious comparison), but there is definitely something horrifically gothic in these stories of monsters in the making.
It definitely helps, I think, to have some prior knowledge of these historical characters. I had never heard of Idi Amin or Rafael Trujili before, for example, and I don't know much about the personal lives of any of them save a bit of Stalin and Hitler (his frustrated artistic ambitions are well-known, though I had forgotten that he was Austrian. Speaking of which, I didn't know Stalin was from Georgia, though that was part of the Russian Empire at the time). When I knew more about the historical figures, I found I could identify the extra layers and dimensions to the story. The story about Saloth Sâr (Pol Pot), for instance, had minimal impact on me because I know very little about Pol Pot or what exactly he did in Cambodia. The name figures like a monster, and the Khmer Rouge comes with images of blood and violence and maimed children, but that's not the same thing as knowing any details. So the story was interesting but didn't have the same effect on me as the ones on Stalin and Hitler. Especially Hitler - you can really see the man he became later, in this teenager, though his energies - and anger - are redirected to the arts:
Adi steps closer, his eyes so intense and full that Frau Kubizek retreats a couple of steps, her bum pressing against the sink. She closes her mouth.
"I need not tell you, Frau Kubizek," says the fiery but still scrupulously polite guest, "that our dear Gustl has talent, which does not appear with any frequency in men. When a person has that blessing, he also has a certain responsibility to seize and develop it. It would be criminal of you, Frau Kubizek, and criminal of Herr Kubizek, and even criminal of Gustl himself, to forsake or ignore such a gift. It would be like spitting into the face of fate, would it not? Lohengrin is about to be performed in our fair city. That is more important than upholstery. Gustl will benefit by attending the opera this evening. He will grow and mature immeasurably from the experience, and I am sure he will then learn to seize the spirit and harness his considerable power of creation. You must let him go."
Frau Kubizek is holding an unopened bean husk with two hands as if it were a life preserver. Her eyes are wide and her brow is raised. "My, my," she says, amazed. "In that case." [p.241]
Where I felt I had some knowledge of the men they were to become, I could detect the subtlety and the layers of meaning, and where I had very little or none, I could simply appreciate the stories for being solid character studies. Some of the characters - or it could just be the nature of the angle of the story Piatigorsky chose - are more vivid than others. One of the reasons why I enjoyed "Bottle Cap" more than some of the others was due to the construction of Rafael as a character, one with OCD and a deep fear of bad omens, who is highly superstitious and indulges in petty revenge. A mulatto by heritage, he tries to disguise his brownish skin, tries to remake himself, and make others see him in the way he wants them to (I read that, as president, he had hundreds of statues of himself erected around the country).
He has already powdered himself, but it hasn't been enough. He lays the comb aside, dabs his pad in the whitening powder, and applies another thick layer to his cheeks, forehead, and neck. He's gritting his teeth and patting his face hard with the makeup pad, wondering all the while why his pure-blood Spanish ancestor couldn't stop himself just that once from ramming his cock into a black girl, as if those Haitian temptresses weren't enough trouble already with their constant encroachments on Spanish land, their barbaric jungle religions, and their incomprehensible, mashed-up excuse for French. [p206]
Themes of sexual temptation occur frequently, as does a strong need to prove oneself and fulfil a self-image that is often unrealistic. In general, all the stories made me want to learn more about these historical figures, especially the ones I don't know much about. Getting this tantalising glimpse into their lives - fictionalised, yes, but still framed in facts where possible - seriously whet my appetite for history, a subject I love and yet sadly have little time (or energy) for these days. Piatigorsky isn't afraid to speculate, or use artistic license to connect the dots, which I really appreciate - some authors who write about historical figures seem to feel constrained by a fear of conjecturing wildly, as if the long-dead individual would accuse them of defamation.
If Piatigorsky's prose read, to me, as a bit constrained and slow, I relished the artful, unhindered explorations of these boys who came to be seen as monsters, and the layered, nuanced exploration of their characters and psyches. With a great sense of setting and culture spanning the globe, Anton Piatigorsky's debut work of fiction is an intriguing and fascinating exploration into the minds and motivations of some of history's darkest characters.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more