Review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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Cover image is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565, incamarastock/alamy. Author photo Frederic Stucin/Pasco & Co

Claire Keegan’s much anticipated new novella is framed by two historical events: an excerpt from The Proclamation of the Irish Republic which declared the resolve of the signatories, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’  The second historical event is the fulsome apology made in the Dáil in 2013 by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny admitting to the State’s abject failure to follow through on its earlier solemn promise.

In January 2021 further apologies were issued following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into some of the Mother and Baby Homes.  It concluded that ‘for decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.’  In television and radio interviews Taoiseach Michéal Martin repeated the idea that as a nation we all shared in the blame.  It seems to me that Keegan has taken that idea to heart and in Small Things Like These her hero, Bill Furlong, shoulders this heavy responsibility on our behalf in an exercise of ‘what might have been’.

The treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes was horrendous and no amount of redress or restitution or official report can assuage it.    One of the most notorious of those institutions was Sean Ross Abbey outside Roscrea in County Tipperary.  It opened its doors in 1931 and closed in 1969 and was run by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary.  One of the 6,414 admitted there to have her baby was Philomena Lee from Newcastle West in County Limerick.  Her baby son was forcibly taken from her and adopted by US parents in the 1950s.  Her experience in Sean Ross was later turned into the award-winning film, Philomena.

Ironically, or maybe not so knowing Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These is set in New Ross (as opposed to Sean Ross – the word ‘sean’ in Irish means ‘old’).  We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, the River Barrow ‘dark as stout’.   It is ‘raw cold’ and relentlessly bleak in the lead up to Christmas 1985 and “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”.  The country is in the grip of recession and everyone is struggling to make ends meet.  Many businesses are closing and being boarded up; redundancies are common even in large firms such as Albatross.  Those still in business are walking a tight rope and carrying out delicate balancing acts each working day. 

The setting is Dickensian in many ways and despite being set in 1985 it does have a much earlier feel to it – for me, it is closer to the Ireland of the 50s and 60s.  Bill Furlong, the main protagonist, has been raised on Dickens – he received a copy of A Christmas Carol from Mrs. Wilson one Christmas and learns to read using the book as a guide.  When asked by his wife Eileen what he wants for Christmas he asks for a Walter Mackin novel or maybe David Copperfield.  This novella has many of the Dickensian traits of a morality tale and if you look closely, and if you are wise you will, you will also hear echoes of McGahern’s love of small details in That They May Face the Rising Sun.

It is a story we think we know well. Claire Keegan sets it in 1985 to give us a jolt into realizing that the Magdalen Laundries, and the wrongful incarceration of women, is not something shameful from another century but is still a reality in Haughey’s Ireland.  Small Things Like These is yet another attempt to shine a light on an awful period in our collective history.  Despite its extreme brevity, it is insightful and written with a striking economy of language; it is, in fact, a tightly edited narrative of fear, uncertainty, hope, heroism and love.

Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the pitfalls that lie ahead. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones, such as the priest and the local convent, are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto is, “Stay on the right side of people and soldier on”. She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.

Bill Furlong sells ‘coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs’ and is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. He is plagued by doubts about his own humble origins and almost feels like an imposter because of his good fortune and his success in business.

Furlong has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short novel, it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart. His wife, Eileen, chides him because he gives away the change out of his pockets to the young boy of the Sinnots.   He feels that he has been consigned to knock on doors, particularly back doors, to see into warm, homely kitchens and well-to-do sitting rooms while also witnessing at first hand the poverty and misery brought about by the economic recession.

Furlong is 39, and is a hero in the classical sense, flawed, uneasy, and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in much the same way as John Kinsella does in Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster. The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the Mother Superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors, beautifully choreographed by the author. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter Joan’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger. 

Essentially, however, he is a good man who will no longer stand by and see evil triumph – he gradually steels himself, despite being aware of the possible consequences, and eventually, he heroically takes a stand.  Mrs. Kehoe and her distinctly Irish aphorisms are an example of the insidious pressure being applied by the people of the town when they sense that Furlong may be about to break ranks.  She and the other townspeople have long been complicit in allowing the situation in the local convent to continue.  Her attitude is like Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’:

Tis no affair of mine, you understand but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?  Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite.  You know yourself.

The cumulative effect of these pieces of advice is to show the silent complicity of all in the town, and the fear which has them all browbeaten into subservience.

It is possible to see that there are many similarities between Claire Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster, and Small Things Like These.  Both are set in the South East of Ireland and while the sun shines continually in Foster, here the weather is anything but benign,

‘And then the nights came on and the frosts took hold again, and blades of cold slid under the doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’.

For me, personally, the idea of people kneeling as a family to say the rosary in Ireland in 1985 is jarring and not credible.  Both novellas have very strong male protagonists and indeed there are many comparisons that can be made between John Kinsella in Foster and Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These.  Interestingly, the young girl who is fostered out to the Kinsellas in Foster lives in Clonegal while the young girl in this novel, Sarah Redmond, also hails from ‘Clonegal out past Kildavin’.

There are many unusual images throughout the novel – one of the early chapters begins, “It was a December of crows.” Later, Furlong again encounters these crows and he describes them as ‘dapper’,

‘striding along, inspecting the ground and their surroundings with their wings tucked in, putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’.

There is another troubling image used earlier when Furlong describes the level of poverty in the town:

And early one morning, Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.

Indeed, and I am saddened to say this, it seems to me that priests and nuns are caricatured here as malign and evil characters like ogres of old. I fear that this will be their lot in Irish literature for some time to come not least as a result of their role in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Home debacle.  Meanwhile, it seems the State has escaped the same level of opprobrium and has come away relatively unscathed.    

Local politicians are on hand to lighten the gloom and arrive to ceremoniously turn on the Christmas lights in early December.  In my mind’s eye, I visualized Michael Darcy or Brendan Howlin, or even Brendan Corish “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.

Keegan uses another unusual image near the end as Furlong approaches the convent with its foreboding high walls topped with broken glass to repel intruders or maybe to deter those wishing to escape:

Turning a corner, he came across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.

The enigmatic Ned tells Furlong of a strange incident where he was giving a neighbour hay from Mrs. Wilson’s barn until one night, ‘something that wasn’t human, an ugly thing with no hands came out of the ditch, and blocked me – and that put an end to me stealing Mrs. Wilson’s hay.’

I hope I haven’t given away too many details, particularly of the cloistered world of the convent as this would spoil your enjoyment of the novel.  And, believe you me, it is an essential stocking filler this Christmas.

The ending to this novel is not a fairytale happy-ever-after one.  Indeed, as we approach the end we sense that Furlong’s troubles are just about to begin.  We are encouraged to brood on the consequences of Furlong’s action.  Keegan presumes that we too know how things work in our little Republic so we come away from the novel fearful for his family, his business:

The worst was yet to come, he knew.  Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.

To say that this new novel by Claire Keegan is long-awaited is an understatement.  However, I would caution against believing all you read in the pre-publication reviews which are universally positive and exaggerated in their praise of her new novella.  Small Things Like These will, however, follow the earlier Foster onto school syllabi and will be studied by generations of our young people in the coming years.  It will hopefully help them answer this deceptively simple question relating to Ireland’s past: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”

You mighjt like to read my detailed analysis of Claire Keegan’s Foster by clicking on this link Study Notes on Foster by Claire Keegan

Study Notes on ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

 

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The cover photo was given to Claire Keegan by Madelaine Greene, wife of John McGahern. It was taken at a funfair in Brussels.

In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:

“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”

More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level.  Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story.  Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.

 All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition

 

About Claire Keegan

 

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Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.

Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.

Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award.  Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.

She is a member of Aosdána.[3]

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After the Rain – Repairs at Ballymore Farm, Co. Wexford.

THE STORY

The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel.  Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family.  Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family.  The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, 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 – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East.  The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown.  Claire Keegan explains:

“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.”

The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless.  Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is 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.

The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children.  She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home.  Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll.  By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.

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.  It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.

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Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford by Tony Robinson on ArtClick.ie Irish

THEMES AND ISSUES

There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course.  The main themes dealt with here are:

  • Growing up/Childhood
  • The Theme of Family

 

The Theme of Growing up/Childhood

This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family.  She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story.  We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her.    Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella.  We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.

The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy.  As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.

As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:

The man will be her size.  He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps.  Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).

She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact.  They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6).  She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).

She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving.  She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10).  She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch.  She tells us that her mother is always busy:

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).

She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17).  Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’.  This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.

One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid.  Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21).  The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).

She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28).  It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child.  This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story.  Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact.  Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting.  She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion.  The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’.  She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE.  She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore.  Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).

The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting.  We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).

It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team.  Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day.  She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever.  One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue.  As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).

Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake.  She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas.  It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house.  Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’!  The narrator  is left aghast:

I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).

When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret.  Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:

‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)

Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items.  The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school.  She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76).  Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade.  Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:

I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree.  Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).

She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also.  They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home.  Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care.  Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).

She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold.  She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold.  She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:

This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).

Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:

It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).

The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home.  She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:

Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).

The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic.  She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her.  She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’.  She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:

‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).

This is, in effect, the climax of the story.  Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal.  However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.  She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.

 

The Theme of Family

Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families.  The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family.  She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.

The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’.  He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds.  We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname.  We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister.  Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3).  He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14).  The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.

Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end.  Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing.  The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different.  The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).

Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name.  We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival.  After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son.  She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end.  It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways.  She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores.  She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.

John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’.  He grows in stature as the story develops.  Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected.  There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father.  He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:

Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock.  When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver.  On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).

He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving.  He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.

He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading.  When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit.  During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly 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’ (p.64).

This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel.  Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’.  It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame.  The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.

Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:

          “You must have carried me there” (p.66).

As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind.  He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.

The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.

Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car.  The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief.  After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred.  We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.

The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.

It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years.  She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:

It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).

We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!

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Lavender Farm, Coolnagloose, Inch, Co. Wexford

CULTURAL CONTEXT

The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981.  The setting is rural County Wexford.  There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time.  The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation.  The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea.  There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.

The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland.  The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there.  In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’.  In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them.  Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.

The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.

The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report.  The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.

Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.

The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess.  The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life.  Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.

Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella.  We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981.  We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations.  It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year.  The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.

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 LITERARY GENRE

This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice.  It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles.  These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.

It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect.  She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor.  In effect, this is a short story with chapters added.  The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.

As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University.  During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen.  She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books.  This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark.  She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.

All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense.  This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present.  Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families.  She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).

The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me.  Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here.  For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside.  Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.

 The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator.  This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.

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 GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981.  The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood.  Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.

We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them.  One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident.  This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all.  Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.

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.  The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it.  The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive.  However, Kinsella will have none of it:

‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.

‘We didn’t really think – ‘

‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).

The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next.  It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad.  Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader.  There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator.  As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments.   There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl.  This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.

The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed.  Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:

.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves.  Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.