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.
Excerpted 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.
Blood at the Root
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