“A Perfect Opportunity to Say Nothing”

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“Foster” – a short story by Claire Keegan

I just read the charming short story, “Foster,” as part of my 2013 short story reading project. I drew the four of diamonds, and diamonds is the suit for new or “unknown” (at least to me) authors. I found this story in my anthology “The Best American Short Stories of 2011” edited by Geraldine Brooks. The inclusion of this story is somewhat confusing since Keegan is an Irish writer. It was further confusing since it was published in the February 15, 2010 edition of The New Yorker; maybe being in The New Yorker qualifies it, but what happened to 2011? Weird, but not the point.

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***Spoilers Follow***

The story “Foster” (later expanded into a short novel) is told from the perspective of a young girl from a poor family. For primarily economic reasons she is sent away for the summer to live with a childless aunt and uncle on their farm. At first, she is very nervous about her new surroundings but grows to love her time there and her temporary “foster” parents.

She learns bits of wisdom from the couple. Early on, the wife tells her’ “…there are no secrets in this house. Where there’s a secret there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without.” She also learns to speak properly, and that the couple had a son of their own who had died after falling into a well.

The husband is a man of few words who, when told by another woman who watches the girl for them that “She’s a quiet young one, this” curtly replies “She says what she has to say, and no more. May there be many like her.” One time when talking with the child, he senses that she doesn’t know how to answer him and says, “You don’t ever have to say anything. Always remember that. Many’s the man lost much just because he lost an opportunity to say nothing.”

Though young, this advice must’ve sunk in, for later in the story and near the end of the summer tragedy nearly strikes as she herself falls into the well. Though quickly rescued and no real harm done, her “foster” parents are understandably concerned (how could they let this happen? Again!). She catches a slight cold and is still coughing and sneezing a little when she must be returned to her actual parents – something she is not looking forward to.

The remnants of the girl’s cold are of course noticed by her parents, who are not wholly satisfied the foster parents’ explanation that “nothing happened,” and that she “just caught herself a wee chill.” After they leave, her true parents question her further:

“What happened at all?” Ma says, now that the car is gone.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Tell me.”
“Nothing happened.” This is my mother I am speaking to, but I have learned enough,grown enough, to know what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

I liked this story a lot. At 27 pages it was longer than most of the stories I’ve read for this year’s project, but once I started reading, I hardly noticed. Are you familiar with Claire Keegan? What have you read by this author? Any subscribers to The New Yorker out there? I’ve thought about subscribing in the past since I know they publish short fiction regularly, but have never followed through.

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