class, however, I did explain why it would be highly unprofessional of
me to allow her to remain in the advanced fiction workshop. After all,
she freely admitted she'd never attempted to write a story before, which,
I explained, put her at an extreme disadvantage. My mistake was in not
leaving the matter there. Instead I went on. "This is a storytelling class,
Sister. We're all liars here. The whole purpose of our enterprise is to
become skilled in making things up, of substituting our own truth for
the truth. In this class we actually prefer a well-told lie," I concluded,
certain that this would dissuade her.
She patted my hand, as you might the hand of a child. "Never you mind,"
she then assured me, adjusting her wimple for the journey home. "My whole
life has been a lie."
"I'm sure you don't mean that," I told her.
In the convent, Sister Ursula's first submission began, I was
known as the whore's child.
Nice opening, I wrote in the margin, as if to imply that her choice
had been a purely artistic one. It wasn't, of course. She was simply starting
with what was for her the beginning of her torment. She was writing-and
would continue to write-a memoir. By mid-semester I would give up asking
her to invent things.
The first installment weighed in at a robust twenty-five pages, which
detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent
school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social
and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a
charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for
there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found
herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain. What little
wealth she possessed-some pens and paper her father had purchased for
her the day before they left the city, along with a pretty new dress-was
taken from her, and she was informed that henceforth she would have no
use for such pitiful possessions. Her needs-food, a uniform and a single
pair of shoes-would be provided for her, though she would doubtless prove
unworthy to receive them. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small,
an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange
them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only
to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured
gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who
immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.
The mockery of her classmates was something Sister Ursula quickly accommodated,
by shunning their companionship. In time she grew accustomed to being
referred to as "the whore's child," and she hoped that the children would
eventually tire of calling her this if she could manage to conceal how
deeply it wounded her. During periods of recreation in the convent courtyard
she perfected the art of becoming invisible, avoiding all games and contests
when, she knew, even those on her own team would turn on her. What she
was not prepared for was the cruelty she suffered at the hands of the
nuns, who seemed to derive nearly as much satisfaction from tormenting
her as their charges---beginning with her request to exchange shoes. She
had not merely been told that this was not permitted, but was given a
horrible explanation as to why this was so. The chafing of the too small
shoes had caused her heels to bleed into her coarse white socks and then
into the shoes themselves. Only a wicked child, Sister Veronique explained,
would foul the shoes she'd been given with her blood, then beg to exchange
them for the shoes of an innocent child. Did she think it fair, the old
nun wondered out loud, that another child, one who had not only a virtuous
mother but also a father, be asked to wear the polluted shoes of a whore's
Worse than the sting of the old nun's suggestion that anything Sister
Ursula touched immediately became contaminated was the inference that
trailed in the wake of her other remark. The innocent girl had not only
a virtuous mother---Sister Ursula knew what this meant---but also a
father, which seemed to imply that she herself didn't have one. Of
course she knew that she did have a father, a tall, handsome father who
had promised to rescue her from this place as soon as he could find work.
Indeed, it was her father who had brought her to the convent, who had
assured Mother Superior that she was a good girl and not at all wicked.
How then had Sister Veronique concluded that she had no father? The young
girl tried to reason it through but became confused. She knew from experience
that evil, by its very nature, counted for more in the world than good.
And she understood that her mother's being a prostitute made her "the
whore's child," that her mother's wickedness diminished her father's value,
but did it negate his very existence? How could such a thing be? She dared
not ask, and so the old nun's remark burrowed even deeper, intensifying
a misery that already bordered on despair.
Sister Ursula's first installment ended here, and her fellow students
approached the discussion of it as one would an alien spacecraft. Several
had attended Catholic schools where they'd been tutored by nuns, and they
weren't sure, despite my encouragement, that they were allowed to be critical
of this one. The material itself was foreign to them; they'd never encountered
anything like it in the workshop. On the plus side, Sister Ursula's story
had a character in it, and the character was placed in a dire situation,
and those were good things for stories to do. On the other hand, the old
nun's idiom was imperfect, her style stiff and old-fashioned, and the
story seemed to be moving forward without exactly getting anywhere. It
reminded them of stories they'd heard other elderly people tell, tales
that even the tellers eventually managed to forget the point of, narratives
that would gradually peter out with the weak insistence that all these
events really did happen. "It's a victim story," one student recognized.
"The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices,
which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she
doesn't participate in her own destiny, where's the story?"
Not having taken the beginning and intermediate courses, Sister Ursula
was much enlightened by these unanticipated critiques, and she took feverish
notes on everything that was said. "I liked it, though," added the student
who'd identified it as a victim story. "It's different." By which he seemed
to mean that Sister Ursula herself was different.
The old nun stopped by my office the day after, and it was clear she was
still mulling the workshop over. "To be so much . . . a victim," she said,
searching for the right words, "it is not good?"
"No," I smiled. Not in stories, not in life, I was about to add, until
I remembered that Sister Ursula still wasn't making this distinction,
and my doing so would probably confuse her further. "But maybe in the
next installment?" I suggested.
She looked at me hopefully.
from The Whore's Child by Richard Russo Copyright 2002 by Richard
Russo. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling Empire Fallsalso named
the years best novel by TimeRichard Russo now focuses, in
his first book of short fiction, on a fresh and fascinating range of human
behavior. With a fluency of tone that will surprise even his devoted readers,
he captures both bewildering horror and heartrending tenderness with an
absorbing, compassionate authority.
We warm to
these newcomersas to all Russos charactersalmost despite
ourselves. A jaded Hollywood moviemaker uncovers a decades-old flame he
never knew hed harbored. A precocious fifth grader puzzles over
life, love and baseball as he watches his parents marriage dissolve.
Another child is forced into a harrowing cross-country escape whose actual
purpose he learns only after the fact. An elderly couple rediscovers the
power, and the misery, of their relationship during a long-awaited retreat
to a resort island. And in the title story, a septuagenarian nun invades
the narrators college writing workshop with an incredible saga.
novelist here extends his versatility and accomplishment, in a collection
that demonstrates yet again that there is a big, wry heart beating
at the center of Russos fiction (The New Yorker).
up in Gloversville, New York, a small, mostly
working-class town. He received his B.A. from the University of Arizona,
went on to get a Master's Degree, and had almost earned his Ph.D. in
American literature when he decided that he would rather write his own
novels than analyze other people's.
the author of five novels including the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Empire
Falls. Russo has taught at The University of Southern Illinois,
The Iowa Writers Workshop and currently
teaches writing at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
In addition to writing fiction, Russo has created numerous screenplays,
some of which have even been made into films (Nobodys Fool,
Twilight). The Whore's Child is his first short story collection.
Russo lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and their two daughters.