Claire Keegan, “Foster”
Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (TNY, Feb. 15 & 22, 2010) tells the story of a young girl who is sent away over the summer to a relative’s home. Because her parents keep having children and they have run into economic problems, the girl’s father drops her off at the house of man called John Kinsella.
It turns out that Kinsella and his wife recently lost a child, who drowned in a well; the girl finds out through a gossipy neighbor. This makes the relationship between the girl and the Kinsellas both intimate and eerie. One gets the impression that they are projecting their love for their dead son on their guest. The girl picks up quickly on the manners and habits she is supposed to have at her new home, and cherishes the attention she gets, which doesn’t exist at her parent’s house. This is at once enticing and troubling for her: “Kinsella takes my hand in his. As he does it, I realize that my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go, so that I won’t have to think about this.”
When the summer is over, the girl is called back to her parents’ house. She has grown attached to the Kinsellas. The final scene, when the summer parents leave her, is carefully pieced together: the girl’s feelings blend in with the Kinsella’s longing for their dead son, while the biological father comes “along strong and steady,” threateningly, to take up his place.
It’s told—fairly plausibly, in terms of language and sense impressions—from the perspective of the girl, and in the present tense. The story blossoms slowly, but it is stirring, even though not much that is concrete or suspenseful happens. Near the end, tension does build up when the girl, dressed in the dead boy’s jacket, goes to the well to fetch water and falls in. I wondered if the story was going to take a supernatural twist. It didn’t, but I still wanted to know if she was going to die as the boy did. This theme is picked up at the end, when the girl hugs Kinsella: “I hold on as though I’ll drown if I let go.”
It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s skillfully built. A couple lines are worth quoting: “I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be”; “I wish I was back at home so that the things that I do not understand could be the same as they always are.”