Claire Keegan: “Foster”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Claire Keegan’s “Foster” was originally published in the February 15 & 22, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

(This issue covers the anniversary of The New Yorker, which usually features the first cover with Eustace Tilley.  This year they have put several different homages instead in a series of covers.)

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It took me nearly the whole week, but I finally finished “Foster.” Luckily, despite the time it took me to read this story, I’m still ahead since this was a double-issue.

Some of you read it much more quickly than I did, and you loved the story. I admired it, and once I finally started reading it didn’t feel the desire to stop until the end. For some reason, though, I didn’t love it — perhaps you spoiled it for me by setting up my expectations!

I did enjoy the story. Set in Ireland, it is told from the perspective of a child whose impoverished parents are expecting yet another child. Because they can’t — or don’t want to — take care of this daughter, they send her to a childless couple who live ”where my mother’s people came from.” She’s filthy when she gets there, she possesses no clothing but what she’s wearing, she’s got lice, and she’s terrified to suddenly be in the care of complete strangers. Of course, things get better because they genuinely care, though there is a bit of mystery about why the couple is childless yet still possess children’s things.

It is a very well written story, subtle and nuanced with a clear focus on the characters. I think I expected more from it, though. One good thing, though, it’s a story that I think rewards rereading. There are a lot of threads that come together toward the end, and it’s nice to see where those threads originated in the story. It is particularly nice to revisit the first few pages where the father and mother and the strangers are first introduced.

Anyway, now that I’ve finished it, please let me know how you felt in more detail.

46 thoughts on “Claire Keegan: “Foster””

  1. Trevor says:

    New forum is up. Read the longest story of the year (so far).

  2. Joe says:

    I just read this story online. (I live in San Francisco and usually don’t get my New Yorker until Thursday or Friday, so I sometimes get antsy to dip into the new issue.)

    This was one of favorite pieces in a long time. I enjoyed the dialog and the attention to details, like the men who “slap the roof of a car before it takes off.” And I think the author (who I wasn’t familiar with before this) does a beautiful job of showing how one element of growing up is deciding what to say and what not to say, deciding which secrets to keep and which ones to share.

  3. Colette Jones says:

    I really liked this one too.

  4. I always take longer to begin these longer stories, so I haven’t made it through it yet. I need to stop looking for the mythical unbroken moment sufficient to read it in one sitting.

  5. Asha says:

    I loved the story.

    What did people think of the ending. Is there something else, some other bond. Much is made of how much she looks like her foster family.

  6. Finally finished the story, but it is too late to write up my thoughts — and maybe too late to understand my thoughts anyway.

  7. Colette Jones says:

    Asha, with the remarks about how the girl looked like the woman, I was guessing that the woman was her aunt (mum’s sister). That doesn’t seem to be the case when they bring the girl back though. Good question!

  8. I also thought that the woman was her aunt, Colette, and I don’t think that view is discounted at the end. The Kinsellas seem to take care of this family with a sense of guilt, as if they are afraid of pushing them away. Of course, the mother seems to think she is entitled to quite a bit of that help.

  9. Colette Jones says:

    Why do I find it easier to comment about the stories I do not like rather than those I do?

    I think this story was very well written, but it also appealed because I could relate to the young girl’s situation. I didn’t have an alcoholic father, fortunately, but money was always tight and relatives had more money. I even remember being shipped out to an auntie when my sister was born when I was four. It was only overnight though!

    At first I didn’t understand why the girl couldn’t tell the story of her fall into the water, but then realised it would raise questions about the drowning of the couple’s son (her cousin?). A bit like that poor woman who was falsely convicted for murder after a second cot death.

  10. Peter Winterble says:

    It’s the best NYer story I’ve read in awhile — maybe I’m just too old-fashioned!

    I especially liked the nuances between the two families, those things not familiar to most of us but understandable through the writer’s skill. I’m thinking of the Irish tradition of critiquing everything that happens, including wakes, and I loved Mildred’s assessment of how the wake had been managed, with the deceased person having only a plastic Rosary in his hands the poor fucker. Too nice!

    Let’s hear it for Ms. Keegan and the Irish. Great stuff.

    Peter in Buenos Aires

  11. Paul Kilduff says:

    Thanks for this board — I was looking for some discussion of the story, having just read it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read for a while, and passed the link to others I thought would enjoy it.

    I *think* it’s explicit in the story that Mrs Kinsella is her mother’s sister…? If not explicit, it seemed implicit to me.

    I also loved the part about men patting the roof of a car. I loved the portrait of the foster couple — I think most of all I loved the language, the way the characters talked — the order of the words.

    Just beautiful. I was intensely moved by the love told about — not saying what she felt, only what she saw and heard. Beautifully written. I was disappointed she couldn’t have stayed with them.

    I read _Emma_ not long ago, and so I guess I’m used to the idea that people adopt children at the drop of a hat. I kept wanting the girl to say, “Mayn’t I please stay with you?” and to have the foster mother and dad write a letter back to her parents asking if she might not stay — wouldn’t they have said yes? I guess it makes a better story the way it’s written….

  12. Karen FitchMcLean says:

    I read this story last night/this morning, and agree with Paul Kilduff. Having read many stories about people’s lives going from miserable to even worse, it was a huge relief to watch the story unfold; the girl was allowed to experience several weeks of affectionate attention, acceptance, and even concern for the future development of her abilities.

    The ending was agonizing, heart-breaking. One reader here said the story wasn’t great, but what I liked about it was that there wasn’t a fancy plot, just a reasonable one. The glory was in the way that huge emotions were dramatized through, as Paul said, a narration of what is seen and heard. The closest she gets to saying what she feels is that sentence where she says during the last week of her stay she is compelled to cling to her uncle, following him as he tries to accomplish his chores. She observes that he is unable to get anything done. She NEVER says I loved him so much as a father that I couldn’t stay away and he cared for me so much he couldn’t concentrate on anything.

    There’s no place like the New Yorker Magazine, eh?

  13. Abbi says:

    This story brought me back to Edna O’Brian and all the other Irish fiction I used to be addicted to. Wonderful characterization and I loved the simple plotline. I loved the description of all the chores that were necessary to keep up the simple farmlife the couple lived and how the child was included, without a lot of fanfare. I also loved the contrasts between the two families, and how the doting and love lavished on the child polished her emotionally and physically, without spoiling her.

    I actually just kept waiting for something bad to happen to the child. I don’t know if this was author’s intention or says more about my own modern perspective of stories involving children.

    I really loved the story and am on the hunt for more of Keegan’s writing.

  14. Connor Cogswell says:

    When I finished this, I did not think it the end so much as the beginning. Too many story lines to be further developed and the last paragraph (“warned”) almost promises there is more to come – don’t you think?

    Someone pointed out on another site this is due to be published in England in a “revised and expanded version” – 128 pages! I can’t wait!

  15. For me, this was an excellent story and I may well buy the “revised and expanded version” when it appears — thanks for that information, Connor.

    Since I’d read the comments here before reading the story, I perhaps was paying more attention to the relationship of the two adult couples than I would have otherwise. And I would like to add another possibility to the ambiguity — that John Kinsella is the narrator’s mother’s brother. I do think all three possibilities (either Kinsella is a sister-brother or neither are and they are true fosters) are viable and that that uncertainty is part of what makes this a very good story. For me, it adds to the story to be able to contemplate all three possibilities.

    Throughout the story, I was reminded of Alice Munro (in a very positive way). Keegan uses the same technique of positioning the narrator as an observor of all the detail that is around the situation she describes. She uses that to paint in parts of the picture in substantial detail, while only hinting at others and, as the comments here illustrate, some of them never do get fully filled in. Yet the overall picture is very well drawn — not just the detail, but the background that produced it and most important the emotions that underlie the whole enterprise. Not to mention the Munro-like tactic of leaving parts of it for the reader to fill in.

    I was also reminded of William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, a very, very good novel that I admire very much. The narrator in part of that book is a young boy who is also removed from his expectant mother when she is sent off to give birth — like Maxwell, Keegan unfolds the sense of sadness and tragedy that is an essential part of the story.

    Any author that brings Munro and Maxwell to mind in such a positive comparison has to be good, from my point of view. This is definitely a first rate work and I think writing this comment has pretty much convinced me to try the novella. I see Keegan has published two story collections and may well give one of them a try.

  16. Colette Jones says:

    I was thinking of Veronica and her brother in the Gathering being sent off to their grandmother for months, something Veronica does not understand and does not forgive. I loved that story and this one is great too, certainly my favourite of the New Yorker fiction year so far, and by far!

  17. Colette Jones says:

    The Book Depository link for The Foster, expanded version, mentioned above.
    http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780571255658/The-Foster

    Looks like it is coming out 1st July.

  18. Connor Cogswell says:

    Kevin, you are right. This is a writer who delivers pleasure just with her narrative voice. Even if there is nothing more to the story (even though I believe there has to be), this is a story that delivers more with each re-reading. Simple exprssions like “togged out”, “beetroot”,”zinc bucket” and my favorite “locked in the wash of his own speech” resonate.

  19. I agree, Connor. Her use of language and the foreboding atmosphere that she creates also reminded me of some of the William Trevor stories that I have read (I’ve read a couple of collections, but by no means all his work). For me, great short story writers need to have those little narrative “gems” (not unlike the “beetroot” to bring out flavor in the ham, if you know what I mean) that add some spice to the story.

  20. Paul Kilduff says:

    I said earlier that I thought it was explicit that Mary and Edna are sisters, but having read it again, I believe, as KevinfromCanada said, that John Kinsella is Mary’s brother. The way they talk to each other is more intimate than the way Edna and Mary talk to each other, and I didn’t find any direct evidence that the two women are sisters….

  21. I also think John and Mary are the siblings. And seeing all of this discussion makes me realize all that is in this story that I at first took for granted. Thanks!

    One thing is certain: a short story published in a weekly that gets this many people excited and commenting is worthwhile. I’m anxious to see how the longer version is too.

    Let’s hope we’re happy with the new New Yorker story being offered tomorrow!

  22. Colette Jones says:

    Well, there was the person in the shop who said the girl looked like Mrs Kinsella (that person was assuming Mrs Kinsella was the mother) so that’s why I think the women were sisters.

  23. We can’t trust people in shops, Colette :) .

  24. Colette: I too noticed the shop clerk’s remark because at that point I still didn’t have an opinion about what the relation might be. Despite the observed physical resemblance, I became more and more convinced that John and Mary are siblings. Mrs. Kinsella just does so many things (i.e. not buying her any clothes) that I can’t believe she is Mary’s sister.

    Also, and more ominously if you assume John is Mary’s brother, is the “Daddy” sequence in the closing paragraph. Given all that has unfolded before (and even more important all that Keegan has chosen not to tell us), it contains at least the hint that the narrator may be the product of an incestuous relationship if John and Mary are siblings. That would make the incident at the well more understandable. On the other hand, the steady succession of Mary pregnancies argues against it. I’m interested that the interpretation is left open — I’m not sure whether or not I’m willing to accept it. I don’t have many alternatives to explain why she calls him “Daddy”. True, her own is a drunken cad but given all the nuances in the rest of the story, that explanation seems a bit obvious. I’d welcome other thoughts on this.

  25. I hadn’t even considered that possibility, Kevin. Hmmm, even if it isn’t true, I’m very impressed with a story that has so many rich interpretations, all calling for a re-read.

  26. Paul Kilduff says:

    Kevin,

    :-)

    I don’t know about the incest idea! If nothing else, how would the girl (is her name really “Petal”? — is that the only name anyone ever calls her? is it a nickname?) know that? I agree that the word “warning” is strange and raises questions. I think she was *calling* him Daddy because for her, he had become her daddy, and she was *warning* him in the sense that she was letting him know that her real daddy was approaching and might feel usurped by the scene of the two hugging. I also enjoy how the story is being told by an adult, remembering what she experienced as a child. So she’s occasionallly putting her two cents’ worth in, as an adult, interpreting what she remembers.

    I was reading it again this morning and enjoyed this all over again — it’s like music:

    “Now, girleen,” she says. “I think it’s nearly time you had a bath.”

    :-)

  27. I think I am more persuaded by your interpretation, Paul, but I wouldn’t discount the potential in Kevin’s, at least not on the basis that the girl wouldn’t know. She’s an older woman now, and she might know a great deal about how these two families are related. Her putting in her adult two cents’ worth in suggests she could have a third meaning with “Daddy.”

    Though, to me, it is a more charming and even more realistic story under your interpretation. I like the idea that it was simply a great bond, some genuine love, particularly given the lack of love going around, that bonded the young girl to Mr. Kinsella. I like that he simply saw in her a young person who deserved to be treated with care.

    But I also like the potentiality of the incestuous relationship.

  28. After a couple days of thinking, here’s where I am at. The beauty of the story is that the now-adult narrator does not know why she bonded so strongly with John Kinsella. Certainly he treated her more like a real father than anyone else (the races to the letter box) and she called him “Daddy”) — I don’t think she has any better answer to the question that he might be her real father than we do, but I do think she has the question in her mind.

    This is a good example of where I compare this story to Alice Munro’s — the author is careful to leave many interpretations open. Both want the reader to do some work with what has been presented. For me, the value in their work is being able to contemplate several possibilities and make a number of them viable.

  29. Leah says:

    I actually thought there was an incestuous relationship in a different way: that Petal was, in a way, falling in love with Kinsella, though there was a fine line between loving him like a father and loving him romantically which she may not have known. The fact that she is embarrassed when her mother pulls out her breast in front of him, the “not telling” – Could Kinsella have been telling her not to speak about him about their possible sexual relationship, or at least, sexual undertones?, him not letting her off his lap, the long legs comments. It kind of reminded me of The Glass Menagerie wherein Laura has a crush on her brother because he is the only man who pays any attention to her.

    Am I too cynical or reading too much into this? Is she warning him she’s attached in a sexual way? What happened to the former child? The other woman said he drowned “or so they said,” as if there was suspicion the Kinsellas had something to do with it. Is Petal warning Kinsella she may be his next victim?

  30. I’m not sure I can follow you there, Leah. A few weeks’ distance from reading the story, though, I’m not sure why I say that so confidently. I do remember that during my first time reading it I wondered what Mr. Kinsella’s relationship with Petal was. Was he sinister? I ended not believing that. I think the intimacy is much more a close filial bond (even if he is not her biological father) and not a sexual attraction. I also think that even if there was a sexual attraction, I don’t think it was consummated.

    Now, as I said, it’s now been a while since I read the story, and while I remember it well, I remember it in the way I read it. If there’s more than a slight intimation of sexual energy in their relationship, it flew by me then. Though I read it twice a few weeks ago, I see I must read it again! And more and more I’m looking forward to the longer version.

  31. Vonnie Hogle says:

    I so enjoyed the intimate language all through “Foster,” especially the ‘floury Queens’ potatos. I’d love one right now myself. I’d like to know the age of Petal and her given name. I think her father’s indifference made her a soft touch for Kinsella’s attention like getting her “togged out.” He ‘looks at me in a way he has never looked before.’ Having her sit on his lap, and ‘that is when he puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his.’ He kisses her when she is leaving, while his wife just hugs her. His attraction to her is more than fatherly. As a result of his attention, Petal falls in love with him, but knows it is not right. In the end she keeps calling him “Daddy,” to warm him, to change it, to try to make him into the father she years for.

  32. Margaret says:

    I just read ‘Foster’ this afternoon and did not want it to end. I grew up in Ireland, having left in the early eighties. The story took me on an extraordinary journey back to my own childhood. The very rare long hot summer, getting dressed up for Sunday mass, and my granny and grandad’s house up the lane with their very own well… I even stayed with them while my mother was in hospital giving birth to my younger brother. It was a joy to read this powerful story and to look back on my own memories and remember the feeling of unconditional love from my grandparents.

    “Petal” is a common Irish term of endearment… my wee Petal! I doubt the adults in the story are related – if they were, John and Edna would be Uncle John and Aunt Edna. I even refer to my great aunt’s as such… and it is common in Ireland to do so. I think maybe that they are cousins.

    I do not believe the relationship was incestuous. I believe it was affection, love, and the power of touch to heal and bond. (Affection that Petal never received from her own father – he had never held her hand.) The bond between John and Petal helped mend his broken heart from the loss of his son.

    I think Petal’s blushing may have been due to her realizing, however subconsciously, that maybe she has betrayed her mother by having feelings of affection and/or love, for John and Edna. Her mother no doubt senses this shift as well. I also wonder about Petal’s cold? Was it a delay tactic so as not to be retuned to her family?

    I loved all the characters in the story and ‘felt’ for each of them. The father who just couldn’t help himself, his wife who did her best with what she had, and the Kinsellas who had lost so much but still had so much to give.

    The ending where Petal refers to John as Daddy is to differentiate between her real father, (Da) and the man whom she wishes were.

    I am already looking forward to revisiting ‘Foster’ as the days and weeks go by and taking delight in reading each and every word again!

  33. Great insights, Margaret. I think my preferred understanding of the story is as you describe it — though I do think Keegan shows her skill by making us wonder :). I am excited for the book — and I truly hope you’ll share your thoughts on it when it comes!

  34. Jon says:

    This was the first time I read any of Keegan, or heard of her. Only very shortly in I felt this was one of the best pieces of fiction I’d seen in a long time. The language and pace of the sentences was beautiful, soothing and gently musical almost. Rarer even, the prose instantly created a visceral sense of both place and feeling instead of having to convey or explain it.

    You feel the calm of the household and the security, reassurance it will give the girl even before she does – “We walk through into the heat of the kitchen, where I am told to sit down, to make myself at home. Under the smell of baking, there’s some disinfectant, some bleach. She lifts a rhubarb tart out of the oven and puts it on the bench. Pale-yellow roses are as still as the jar of water they are standing in.” You know the people are civilized and generous there – “He opens a jar of beetroot and puts it on a saucer with a little serving fork, leaves out sandwich spread and salad cream. Already there’s a bowl of tomatoes and onions, chopped fine, a fresh loaf, ham, a block of red cheddar” – and that she will have a respite from the coarse lovelesness of her home.

    I was tremendously relieved to learn of the boy’s accidental drowning, as it cut off the possibility of anything truly sinsiter as the cause of the only disturbing, dysfunctional instinct of either of the Kinsella’s, the woman’s reluctance to buy suitable clothes for the girl.

    It never occured to me that there was anything sexual, expresed or not, in the feelings between the girl and Kinsella. I felt the only ambiguity at the end was whether her father, walking strongly toward her and Kinsella, would reclaim her out of some pride, certainly he could not from love, or let her go back to her new-found home.

    I thought it was clear the Kinsellas are not related but by distant marriage to Petal’s father – “He looks nothing like my mother’s people, who are all tall, with long arms, and I wonder if we have not come to the wrong house” – and that the woman and her mother are relations – “Her hands are like my mother’s hands but there is something else in them, too, something I have never felt before and have no name for.”

    I read it straight through the first time in one sitting and then various parts over and over, the first time in ages I’ve done that with short fiction. Yesterday went and found one of Keegan’s two collections, “Walk the Blue Fields”, which has a harrowing story in which incest does play a major role. Like “Foster” it is powerful but unlike here the language there is short and hard, you feel the dry hollowed insides of the protagonist/narrator’s consciousness. Keegan is remarkably skillful.

  35. Thanks for your great comment, Jon. It is nice to see the passages you are referring to. Also, great to know that her collections are great as well. And it does look like the incest possibility is still there if it’s a theme she’s touched on before. I don’t think I read it that way yet, but I do like the possibility of multiple interpretations.

  36. SM says:

    I just finished reading it for the first time, and I think I’ll re-read it sometime soon. I did not get an incestuous vibe between Kinsella and Petal, so I was surprised when it was raised in the comments.

    Petal’s relationship with Kinsella _is_ “sexual,” in the way that a father holding his daughter’s hands, hugging her, praising her body, and putting her on his lap is “sexual.” There are healthy father-daughter relationships, and unhealthy ones. Kinsella modeled a healthy one, and “Da” did not.

    Only in contrast with the chaste frigidity of “Da” does Kinsella’s warmth seem excessively sexual. Isn’t it weird that a girl has never held her father’s hands? In this context, when that girl lovingly holds a man’s hands for the first time, it must feel extraordinary good, and maybe even sexual (in a good way).

    Petal’s betrayal can be adulterated, and interpreted as adultery. She betrays her parents by falling in love with the Kinsellas. She hides this fostered love from her parents like an adulterous woman hiding her affair. Since adultery and sexuality is a common rubric for adult understanding of amorous betrayal, the reader can graft that rubric onto this story, along with the sexual baggage.

  37. Ca says:

    Upon Petal’s return, her biological mother comments and raises her eyebrows upon hearing the girl using the word, “Yes,” instead of “Aye” used at home.

    That, coupled, with Petal calling her foster parent “Daddy,” shows she has grown under her foster parents’ care and learned the distinction between the person she calls “Da,” and what a very caring father figure can be like.

  38. John Self says:

    Just a quick note on the UK publication of this as I’m about to leave the office for the day… The standalone book edition of Foster is published by Faber on 2 September 2010. However contrary to the info on Faber’s site and Amazon, it’s not 128 pages, but only 57 pages long! And large-ish type, at that. I’d estimate the book is no more than 15,000 or so words, so probably not much expanded on the New Yorker version. (And probably just as well: would a great story ever benefit from being – let’s be frank – padded?)

    As to the story itself, I thought it beautifully written, particularly the dialogue, and moving. I had better add that I did not even remotely countenance the possibility of incestuous relationships nor that the Kinsellas were related to the girl’s mother. (In the book she has no name, and I don’t think she even gets referred to as ‘petal’.)

  39. Hmmmm. Probably not a contender for the Booker Prize, then, right? I know they’ve let novellas in before, but 15,000 words, it seems to me, would be clearly below the “novel” line. I was thinking of ordering the book from the UK, John, but if it’s barely longer than the New Yorker version I don’t think I will, though I am curious about the changes . . .

  40. Ca says:

    I just read the book form of this story. It does not seem to be expanded much, but what has been added is revealing.

    The relationship between the couples is expanded. Edna
    is apologetic for not giving Mary more rhubarb, even after she and her husband gave her daughter more love and attention than she ever has had.

    The wake scene is longer and reveals more about the foster dad, even that though Petal loves him so much, he still has some flawed judgment.

    Any other comments on the differences between the two versions?

  41. Lizzie says:

    Just read this short story this past week-end. Loved it! Tried to get my daughter to read it, and share her thoughts with me. I was confused about the ending, and why she called the foster dad “daddy”, and what was with the warning. I also didn’t understand the “secret” that she wanted to keep, about the couple. Was it simply, that their child had died? Or, that she could have drowned, herself? Would that prevent any future visits? I thought it was beautifully written, and I love stories about farms, where there is hard, honest work, and beautiful payoffs. I loved the description of the ocean, and the lantern and most especially, what the foster dad says about missed opportunities to say nothing. I think that’s the best quote I’ve seen in years. I love it. Great story!

  42. Thanks for stopping by, lizzie. You’re not the only person who loved this story. This page has become, in the short time since it was posted, one of my most viewed posts. Since the New Yorker pages are not on my main blog, that means quite a few people liked this story enough to search it out.

    As to your questions, I think there are some good answers up above in the comments.

  43. Colette Jones says:

    Well, I read the “book” version last night and couldn’t spot any differences at all. Nothing is any more clear. Still a good story of course, but I’m slightly disappointed.

  44. Thanks for that info, Colette — it saves me investing in the book version.

  45. I agree with KFC, Colette. I wasn’t sure whether to get the book or not, and now I don’t have to :).

  46. ana says:

    Just read “Foster” from New Yorker archives after an enthusiastic review from DoveGreyReader. Wonderful to discover your conversation here. I am so keen to re read as well.

    Is every second person in Wexford a Redmond? I am married into a Redmond family and find the name appears so often in Toibin’s work, much of that set in Wexford. “The Heather Blazing ” was my first fiction encounter with Toibin and with the fictional Redmond clan. What a treat that novel was.

    Thanks for an absolutely brilliant discussion here.

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