Foster by Claire Keegan (Summary) - Leaving Cert English
June 2, 2017
Foster is a "long short story." It was published in The New Yorker, and in expanded form as a standalone book by Faber and Faber. Claire Keegan has also published two collections of short stories with Faber, Antarctica (1999), and Walk the Blue Fields(2007).
Set in rural Wexford, Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, by her father, for the summer months. They are kind and caring, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.
Blessedly, Keegan's Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine.
"For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we've had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer."
Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.
"It's an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don't trust that home is necessarily where one finds one's happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I'm very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous."
A little girl is sent to live indefinitely with her ‘mother’s people’ – a childless couple on a farm in rural Ireland with apparently plenty of food and money to spare. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before. Her happiness is short-lived, however, when a secret revealed by a neighbour threatens to destroy her childhood idyll.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism.
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