The Lennoxville Library is about to close.
Apologies for the dramatic nature of that sentence, but you need to know. We’re closing for a full week, from Friday, May 30 to June 5.
Author Emma Donoghue is the sort of writer who could look at the three sentences above, clipped out of a newspaper, and from them create a delightful short story.
That’s what she’s done again and again in Astray (2012), a 14-story collection that’s well worth your time. Recommended by Janet Angrave, Astray “is unlike other short fictions I have read. She uses facts or characters from historical records and creates imaginary lives across historical eras in the U.S. and Canada. Her rich imagination makes these stories feel real and fascinating.”
‘Man And Boy’ is a dialogue between a trainer and Jumbo, the elephant beloved by British children who was nonetheless sold to P.T. Barnum and shipped to a North American circus in 1882. The characterization is delightful.
The earliest tale is set in 1639 on Cape Cod (‘The Lost Seed’), and features one Richard Berry, as he and his mates attempt to found a successful settlement in the New World. Donoghue portrays Berry’s fury and disgust at those who sing anything other than Christian hymns (“If she does not take care, her behavior will be spoken of at Meeting”). Extant legal records list the many residents Berry accused of sex crimes. Later, he recanted, was whipped, and even later was banished for “filthy obscene practices”.
A delightful attempt to steal and ransom Abe Lincoln’s body (‘The Body Swap’) takes an odd turn.
The story ‘Counting The Days’ includes snippets from the surviving letters between a husband who emigrated to Canada, and the wife who finally boards a ship many, many months later to join him (“I am thinking great long to see you”).
All are tales of travel, written as Donoghue considers her own life choices.
She was born in Dublin. “By long tradition, Irish writers emigrate,” notes the afterword. Donoghue herself moved to Canada at 28 “for love, and I’ve never regretted it.”
But that made her a stranger here, and the arrival of a stranger allows residents – and writers — to see the banal with new eyes.
“Straying,” Donoghue writes, “has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will the needle swing when you’re far from home?”
AFRICA AND AIDS
By 2003, when Deborah Ellis traveled through Malawi and Zambia, more than 10 million children had been orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa because of AIDS. Ellis talked to these children wherever she found them – and they were everywhere.
“Most African countries pay up to three times more on international debt repayment than they do on health care,” Ellis writes in Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk About AIDS (2005), hailed by the American Library Association as a “Notable Book”.
In North America, AIDS is now a manageable illness, with death rates far lower than in the 1980s and early ‘90s. But the desperately poor in many areas of Africa have no money for doctors or pills.
The first child is eight years old. His mother is still alive, and sells ribbons on the street. Mama lives in a dark shed with a cement floor and a fire, and takes in as many orphans as she can find.
Martha, 7, watched her father die: “The air went out of him, and he was too tired to get it back in again.”
Royalties from this book go to Unicef. And locally, the Grannies hold regular fundraisers as part of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, connected to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which works with community groups in Africa that set local priorities.
THEY DID WHAT?
And now for something completely different: They Did What?! Your Guide To Weird And Wacky Things People Do (2005) features underwear that filter farts, how the napkin was invented (it can get dicey to use the tablecloth to wipe your mouth), and the important information that the Jim Smith Society encompasses 1,800 Jim Smiths.
Author Jeff Szpirglas has collected up a selection of cool facts: A Tilley hat provides solid value… it survived being eaten by an elephant… yes, you know exactly what that means – and no, I’m not sure you’d want to wear it again…
Still, it’s good information to have. As Szpirglas points out, “How would you know not to lick a metal pole in the middle of January if some brave kid hadn’t taught us all a lesson by freezing his tongue to one?”
He also includes a delightful collection of hoaxes, jokes, and April Fool-ishness. Discover magazine once announced the detection of a new rodent in Antarctica. It has a boney head-plate that gets so warm in the sun, the furry critter uses its pate to melt ice to get to its food.
– Eleanor Brown, May 23, 2014