Claire Keegan’s novella “Foster,” initially published as a short story in The New Yorker before its UK release in 2010, unfolds a delicate tale of a young girl’s summer that forever alters her view of family, love, and belonging.
Set against the lush, rural backdrop of Southeast Ireland, the story delves into the life of an unnamed narrator sent to live with her mother’s relatives, the Kinsellas, in County Wexford. This temporary arrangement, born out of her own family’s financial struggles, becomes a pivotal journey of self-discovery and healing.
As the novella begins, we’re introduced to the young girl on a Sunday, fresh from Mass, traveling with her father to the Kinsellas’ home.
The warmth with which she’s received by John and Edna Kinsella contrasts starkly with her father’s abrupt departure, leaving her without even a proper goodbye or her belongings. This moment marks the beginning of her transformative summer.
Edna’s nurturing presence immediately envelops the girl, offering her a bath, clothes, and a glimpse into a life of care she hasn’t known. Fetching water from the well, the girl dares to wish for this to become her real home, a sentiment that tugs at the heartstrings.
The Kinsellas’ tender care, treating her accident in the night with understanding rather than scorn, further cements her sense of belonging.
Life with the Kinsellas unfolds in simple yet profound routines: sharing meals, assisting with household chores, and the occasional excursion that weaves her deeper into the fabric of their lives.
A shopping trip to Gorey for new clothes, a visit to a wake, and the revelation of the Kinsellas’ lost son paint a picture of a community intertwined with loss and love.
As the story progresses, the girl learns of the tragic death of the Kinsellas’ son, an event that has silently shaped their lives.
This revelation, shared by Mildred during an uncomfortable visit, doesn’t drive a wedge between the girl and the Kinsellas.
Instead, it draws them closer, culminating in a poignant moment on the beach where John Kinsella, in a rare display of vulnerability, holds the girl’s hand and shares a lesson on the value of silence.
The eventual letter from the girl’s mother, signaling it’s time for her return, brings a bittersweet close to her stay.
The girl’s decision to leave immediately, her accident at the well, and her final departure are handled with a gentle poignancy that Keegan masterfully captures. The girl’s return to her biological family is marked by a stark contrast between the care she received from the Kinsellas and her family’s neglectful environment.
Yet, the novella closes on a note of hope and newfound strength, as the girl runs back into Kinsella’s arms, a symbolic gesture of the indelible bond they’ve formed.
The unnamed young girl at the heart of “Foster” is sent to live with her mother’s relatives due to her family’s financial struggles.
Over the course of a summer, she experiences a profound transformation, learning about love, care, and belonging. Her journey from feeling like an outsider to finding a place where she feels valued and seen is central to the story.
Often referred to simply as Kinsella, John is a kind and gentle man who, along with his wife Edna, takes the narrator into their home for the summer. His quiet strength and compassionate nature play a crucial role in the narrator’s sense of belonging and understanding of family beyond blood ties.
Edna is a nurturing and caring figure who immediately takes the narrator under her wing, providing her with the warmth and attention she has lacked. Her actions throughout the novella, from the smallest gestures of care to her emotional support, are pivotal in the narrator’s transformation.
The Narrator’s Father (Da)
The narrator’s father is depicted as somewhat detached and eager to leave his daughter with the Kinsellas. His brief appearance at the beginning and end of the story highlights the emotional and physical distance in their relationship.
The Narrator’s Mother (Ma)
Though she never appears directly in the story, the narrator’s mother’s presence is felt through references to her and the circumstances that led to the narrator’s stay with the Kinsellas. Her struggles with poverty and caring for her children are a backdrop to the narrative.
A local woman who reveals to the narrator the tragic story of the Kinsellas’ deceased son. Her interaction with the narrator adds depth to the story, exposing the complexities and interconnectedness of the community and the personal histories within it.
1. The Essence of Family and Belonging
At its core, “Foster” examines what it truly means to be part of a family.
The novella challenges traditional notions of familial bonds not as ties of blood but as connections forged through love, care, and understanding. The young narrator’s journey from feeling like an outsider in her own home to finding a profound sense of belonging with the Kinsellas underscores the idea that family is defined more by emotional bonds than by genetic links.
The Kinsellas, who have suffered their own profound loss, open their hearts and home, offering the narrator a sense of security and belonging she has never known.
This theme invites readers to reflect on the varied forms family can take and the profound impact of feeling truly seen and valued.
2. The Shadow of Loss and Grief
Keegan subtly interweaves the theme of loss throughout the novella, showing how it shapes individuals and relationships.
The Kinsellas’ deceased son, a presence felt more in his absence, represents the silent grief that permeates their lives. Yet, it is this very loss that enables them to open their home and hearts to the narrator, seeking solace in providing the care they can no longer give to their own son.
The narrative beautifully explores how grief can lead to acts of generosity and love, suggesting that the way we navigate our sorrows can lead to unexpected bonds and healing.
The girl’s discovery of the boy’s clothes she has been wearing serves as a poignant reminder of the child the Kinsellas lost, further emphasizing how loss and love are deeply intertwined.
3. Transformation Through Kindness and Care
A prevailing theme in “Foster” is the transformative impact of kindness and care.
The narrator, accustomed to being somewhat invisible within her own family, blossoms under the attentiveness and affection of the Kinsellas. Their simple acts of kindness—providing her with new clothes, teaching her to read, and including her in their daily routines—offer her a new perspective on herself and her worth.
This transformation is not only limited to the narrator but also extends to the Kinsellas, who find in her a way to channel their nurturing energies and perhaps mitigate their own grief.
The novella suggests that acts of kindness, often simple and unassuming, have the power to heal and change lives in profound ways.
“Foster” is more than a coming-of-age story; it’s a beautifully rendered exploration of the complexities of family, the deep scars of loss, and the healing power of unconditional love.
Through the eyes of its young narrator, Keegan invites readers into a world where kindness and understanding can transform lives, leaving a lasting impression long after the final page is turned.