Foster by Claire Keegan


I have listened to this one-hour audiobook three times now and have grown to love it more each time. It is a sad story with warm loving characters. I will begin with a SPOILER ALERT; after all, I am writing to revisit what I loved about the book and it’s hard to go far without revelations in this case.

It is written from the point of view of a child and begins with her being driven to stay at her aunt and uncle’s farm in Ireland during yet another of her mother’s pregnancies. The time period is not clear to me, though the adults refer to the E.E.C. which the internet tells me came into being in 1958. The child seems not to know what to expect in this household. Her observations let us know her father is brusque with everyone, including his brother John and John’s wife Edna. He mentions that the child might eat them out of house and home and leaves without giving them the clothing packed for the child.

“The woman,” as the child refers to her, gives her a bath and makes her understand she is safe and will be comfortable. As the days wear on, the child describes all their many tasks, done in a deliberate, but unhurried way. John works outside all day, but takes time to attend to the child, encouraging her to run as fast as she can to the mailbox and times her runs each day. It was John who declares they need to buy her clothes and gives her a pound to buy candy. The household is lively in the evenings with friends coming over to play cards and sometimes spoons. One evening when someone took up braying, Edna brings her down, as no one could sleep with that going on.

Like my friend Laura’s father, an Iowa farmer from perhaps the same era, John gave the child some advice:   ‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.’’ As I recall it, Laura’s father had occasion to say:  “Well, there’s another perfect opportunity you passed up to say nothing.”

One evening when the three were at a wake, a neighbor volunteers to take the child to her house to wait until John and Edna are ready to leave. As soon as they are out the door, the neighbor begins asking questions, “Does she use butter or margarine? Is the freezer full? Are the child’s clothes still hanging in the wardrobe?” and then tells the child about the tragic death of John and Edna’s son by drowning. The Kinsellas ask if the neighbor told her anything and the child readily tells what was said.

When school is about to begin, they prepare to take her home. One evening she fetches water and feels herself pulled into the water tank; she doesn’t drown, but catches a cold. When Edna and John are leaving her at her house, she runs after John and into his arms, sees Edna sobbing and crying, and calls John “Daddy.”

Despite her apparent growing love for them, the child always refers to her aunt as “the woman” and her uncle as “Kinsella.” And we never learn the child’s name. This reserve and formality somehow makes the warmth in that house feel stronger.

I have also read Small Things Like These and loved it too.

Claire Keegan, Foster, Grove Press, 2022, first published in 2007, 95 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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