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“The Whore’s Child”

from The Whore’s Child and Other Stories

By Richard Russo

Vintage

July 2003

This morning I rollerbladed to Harvard to get some breakfast from Darwin’s. Paying the cashier, I noticed a little pamphlet entitled One City One Story: “The Whore’s Child.” My curiosity piqued, I picked it up and began reading it as I waited for my sandwich. I found myself drawn in instantly, and I had thoroughly devoured it by the time I had similarly finished off my sandwich.

The tale is narrated by the teacher of a fiction writing class, who finds himself with an idiosyncratic Belgian nun as one of his students. Sister Ursula is neither enrolled in the class, nor does she write fiction, but she is undeterred by his proclamation that, “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.” She remains in the class and tells the sad story of her life through each of her writing assignments.

As the title suggests, Ursula is the child of a prostitute. She’s left at a convent school and suffers an unhappy childhood, bullied by nuns and fellow children. She dreams of being rescued by her father and of escaping, but after her mother dies she finally becomes a nun.

The short story is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo and is stylistically interesting, since as each “chapter” of Sister Ursula’s story unfolds, the teacher and his class comment on and analyze it. This sometimes means the questions raised suggest new lines of thinking to the reader and guide his interpretation. It creates a meta-story and gives an outside perspective to the nun’s story; this plays a significant role in the ending, which has a satisfying and not-too-predictable twist.

The pamphlet itself is the second annual installment of One City One Story, a Boston Book Festival project that aims to provide a shared reading experience to the inhabitants of Boston and raise awareness of the pleasures of reading (their website provides audio files, downloads, and translations of the short story). Thirty thousand copies of the pamphlet have been published and distributed. The Boston Book Festival also includes a writing contest and an event on Oct. 15 where you can meet the author and discuss the story with others.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear of this project, and I hope to see more of these pamphlets around town. “The Whore’s Child” is a highly enjoyable read — so it seems only fitting for me to recommend it and embrace the project’s motto of “Read. Think. Share.”

For more information about One City One Story and the Boston Book Festival, visit http://www.bostonbookfest.org/.