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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42962-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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To this irresistible debut collection of short stories, Richard Russo brings the same bittersweet wit, deep knowledge of human nature, and spellbinding narrative gifts that distinguish his best-selling novels. His themes are the imperfect bargains of marriage; the discoveries and disillusionments of childhood;the unwinnable battles men and women insist on fighting with the past.

A cynical Hollywood moviemaker confronts his dead wife’s lover and abruptly realizes the depth of his own passion. As his parents’ marriage disintegrates, a precocious fifth-grader distracts himself with meditations on baseball, spaghetti, and his place in the universe. And in the title story, an elderly nun enters a college creative writing class and plays havoc with its tidy notions of fact and fiction. The Whore’s Child is further proof that Russo is one of the finest writers we have, unsparingly truthful yet hugely compassionate and capable of creating characters real that they seem to step off the page.


The Whore's Child

Sister Ursula belonged to an all but extinct order of Belgian nuns who conducted what little spiritual business remained to them in a decrepit old house purchased by the diocese seemingly because it was unlikely to outlast them. Since it was on Forest Avenue, a block from our house, I'd seen Sister Ursula many times before the night she turned up in class, but we never had spoken. She drove a rusted-out station wagon that was always crowded with elderly nuns who needed assistance getting in and out. Though St. Francis Church was only a few blocks away, that was too far to walk for any of them except Sister Ursula, her gait awkward but relentless. "You should go over there and introduce yourself someday," Gail, my wife, suggested more than once. "Those old women have been left all alone." Her suspicion was later confirmed by Sister Ursula herself. "They are waiting for us to die," she confessed. "Impatient of how we clutch to our miserable existences."

"I'm sure you don't mean that," I said, an observation that was to become my mantra with her, and she, in turn, seemed to enjoy hearing me say it.

She appeared in class that first night and settled herself at the very center of the seminar despite the fact that her name did not appear on my computer printout. Fiction writing classes are popular and invariably oversubscribed at most universities, and never more so than when the writer teaching it has recently published a book, as I had done the past spring. Publishing the kind of book that's displayed in strip-mall bookstores bestows a celebrity on academic writers and separates them from their scholar colleagues, whose books resemble the sort of dubious specialty items found only in boutiques and health food stores. I'd gotten quite a lot of press on my recent book, my first in over a decade, and my fleeting celebrity might have explained Sister Ursula's presence in my classroom the first chilly evening of the fall semester, though she gave no indication of this, or that she recognized me as her neighbor.

No, Sister Ursula seemed innocent not only of me but also of all department and university protocol. When informed that students petition to take the advanced fiction writing class by means of a manuscript submission the previous term, and that its prerequisites were beginning and intermediate courses, Sister Ursula disputed neither the existence nor the wisdom of these procedures. Nor did she gather her things and leave, which left me in an odd position. Normally it's my policy not to allow unregistered students to remain in class, because doing so encourages their mistaken belief that they can wheedle, cajole or flatter their way in. In the past I'd shown even football players the door without the slightest courtesy or ceremony, but this was a different challenge entirely. Sister Ursula herself was nearly as big as a linebacker, yet more persuasive than this was her body language, which suggested that once settled, she was not used to moving. And since she was clearly settled, I let her stay.

After 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 child?

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 Hardcover edition.
Richard Russo

About Richard Russo

Richard Russo - The Whore's Child

Photo © Elena Seibert

Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.



“An author whose laid-back understatements can be as sharp as other writers’ boldest declarations….the architect of stories you can’t put down.” --The New York Times

“[Russo] has joined those writers who can be said to have coined their own universe…. [He] achieves an emotional balance through his humor and generosity of spirit.” --Chicago Sun-Times

“The most expansive of contemporary writers.” -- The New York Times Book Review

“Straightforward and engaging from the first page… Mr. Russo makes writing short stories seem effortless.” --Wall Street Journal

“These beautifully crafted stories, made more appealing by their rueful humor, are the work of a writer at the top of his game.” –New York Post

“Russo is a master of the small moment as nuclear explosion, the life-changing turn of the screw. His writing is unornate, but as authoritative (and cool) as marble. . . .The Whore’s Child is . . . powerful and moving.” –Atlanta Journal Constitution

“The vigorous comic voice that has always been Russo’s is a great leavening force here. . . . These stories are something to be grateful for.” –Newsday

The Whore’s Child pulsate[s] with real life.” –The New Leader

“[Russo] stands alone as the Stendhal of blue-collar America.” –Esquire

“Russo again proves himself the master of real-life angst with the comic twist. His characters are sometimes funny, often sad, but never pathetic.” –Orlando Sentinel

The Whore’s Child should solidify his reputation….All seven stories are lovely examples of Russo’s wit and compassion.” –Newark Sunday Star-Ledger
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An author whose laid-back understatements can be as sharp as other writers’ boldest declarations . . . the architect of stories you can’t put down.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of The Whore’s Child, the first collection of short stories from Richard Russo, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his bestselling novel Empire Falls. With a fluency of tone that will surprise even his most devoted readers, he captures both bewildering horror and heartrending tenderness with an absorbing, compassionate authority.

About the Guide

A jaded Hollywood moviemaker uncovers a decades-old flame he never knew he’d 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 narrator’s college writing workshop with an incredible saga. With The Whore’s Child, a masterful novelist extends his versatility and accomplishment, demonstrating yet again that “there is a big, wry heart beating at the center of Russo’s fiction” (The New Yorker).

About the Author

Richard Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York. He is the author of five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls. He lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters.

Discussion Guides

1. For discussion of “The Whore’s Child”
In what ways does Sister Ursula present a challenge to the writing teacher? Does the story suggest that the teacher treats all his students with such delicacy and compassion, or is she a very special case? What do the younger students’ comments reveal about them?

2. The act of telling or writing one’s story is usually thought of as therapeutic. What is the cost of Sister Ursula’s compulsion to write her story? Given what she learns in the process, how do you imagine she will respond to this new knowledge?

3. For discussion of “Monhegan Light”
What does Martin not understand about Laura and about himself? How does his meeting with the painter Robert Trevor change him? Does the story suggest that in all marriages, worlds of emotion and experience may be kept secret from one’s spouse?

4. Martin thinks that his wife’s sister Joyce hates him because he is a man: “It was because you had a dick. You just didn’t get it” [p. 26]. Late in the story, information is revealed that could change the reader’s view of Joyce as an angry, bitter, joyless person. What has been the motivation behind Joyce’s behavior towards Martin? Is she justified in her anger? Does the reader’s perspective on Martin shift as well?

5. How are Martin’s ideas about feminine beauty, and women’s anxieties about their beauty, connected to his profession? If the story is partly about seeing, and seeing what we want to see, how do Martin’s and Trevor’s ways of seeing differ? What happens when Martin sees his wife through Trevor’s eyes?

6. For discussion of “The Farther You Go”
The narrator, Hank, is confused by his negative feelings toward his daughter Julie. What are some of the reasons he feels so alienated from her? How does Julie feel about her father?

7. As he drives his son-in-law Russell to the airport, Hank thinks, “I’m afraid he’ll tell me what’s wrong with my daughter, and why their lives together went wrong” [p. 65]. Why is he being drawn so intimately into his daughter’s marital problems? What is the role of “failures of imagination” [p. 70] in the misunderstandings among Hank, Faye, Julie, and Russell?

8. In the story, we are shown Hank’s experiences as a man (just recovering from prostate surgery), as a father, and as a husband. Are any of these identities clear-cut? Which of these identities makes him feel most, and least, comfortable?

9. For discussion of “Joy Ride”
What is worrisome, to the twelve-year-old narrator, about the group of friends he has fallen in with? Is there a relationship between the boy’s “random acts of senselessness” [p. 78] and his mother’s restlessness?

10. The mother compares the multitude of small cuts she and her son receive from the shards of their broken windshield to her marriage [p. 92]. What sort of man is her husband, and what kind of family life do the three have together? Why, when they return home and again years later, does the child suffer from a sense of having betrayed his father? Is the child more mature than his mother?

11. Why does his mother take the boy along on her trip, where he becomes a witness to her sexual yearnings and her dangerous flirtations with strangers? Is the boy right, at the end of the story, in thinking that his mother never intended to leave his father for good, and that she really did want just a “joy ride”?

12. For discussion of “Buoyancy”
How strongly does the story suggest that Paul Snow is responsible for the misery of his wife? Why is the memory of her breakdown, some years in the past, so fresh? Why is he always vigilant about her mental state? What is significant or symbolic about his last name?

13. What is the meaning of the “phantasm” Paul Snow sees just before he collapses on the beach [p. 137]? Is there a kind of poetic justice in the fact that he too suffers a breakdown?

14. What is revealed in Snow’s remark to his wife, “Cover yourself, June. For God’s sake” [p. 142]? Does the end of the story suggest that this unhappy marriage is finally over?

15. For discussion of “Poison”
The narrator and his wife Clare disagree about his friend Gene and what “Gene’s head is full of. Hypocrisy and bitterness, she thinks, whereas my vote always leans toward injury and rage. We agree on self-loathing, though Clare considers this a sign of his intelligence, while I do not” [p. 147]. Who is the more accurate judge of Gene’s character?

16. Why is the narrator susceptible to the power of Gene’s obsession with their shared past, and Gene’s desire that they go back and fight to shut down the mill? If the two friends represent two different ways of dealing with injury—obsession and repression—whose is the more psychologically healthy?

17. The narrator’s father died of a brain tumor, and the narrator himself, we learn, has just had a tumor removed that turned out to be benign. What does his dream, related at the end of the story, signify?

18. For discussion of “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart”
What do Linwood’s thoughts reveal about him? Is it unusual for a child to believe that objects have inner lives? How well do his parents understand or protect him?

19. What do the descriptions of various members of Linwood’s extended family—and his mother and father—suggest about the rift between his parents? Why do his parents get back together? How is Linwood changed at the end of the story?

20. For discussion of THE WHORE'S CHILD
The critic Diane Roberts noted, “Russo is a master of the small moment as nuclear explosion, the life-changing turn of the screw” (Houston Chronicle). In which stories are such moments of insight particularly powerful?

21. In several of these stories, husbands and wives are seriously at odds, and children are caught between feuding parents, or parents have to intervene for troubled children. Is Russo’s view of family life—or married life—particularly bleak, or scrupulously realistic?

22. What is the effect of the collection as a whole, given the order, pacing, and content of the stories? What view of life does it project?

23. What do the two stories told from a child’s perspective have in common? How does Russo show himself to be a compassionate observer of children’s troubles?

Suggested Readings

Russell Banks, Affliction; A. S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories; John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever; Anton Chekhov, Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories; Richard Ford, Women with Men; Henry James, What Maisie Knew; John McGahern, The Collected Stories; Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage: Stories; Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man; Annie E. Proulx, Heart Songs; Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here; Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life.
Richard Russo

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Richard Russo - The Whore's Child

Photo © Elena Seibert



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