Ellen Foster is the first novel by twenty-seven-year-old Kaye Gibbons, a North Carolina native and recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although one chapter from her novel was published in the initial issue of The Quarterly, Kaye Gibbons was virtually unknown until Ellen Foster achieved praise and national recognition in The New York Times Book Review. The praise is well deserved. Ellen Foster is an accomplished first novel, written with honesty, compassion, and humor, and offering a vividly realized plot, conflict, and central character.
Set in the rural South, where the author grew up, the novel is narrated by the title character, an eleven-year-old orphan who adopts the surname Foster after she begins living with a foster family. Ellen’s story concerns her arduous and painful search for a safe, loving family with whom to spend her adolescent years. The novel alternates segments from Ellen’s present life with her foster mother, whom she calls only “my new mama,” with harrowing recollections from her earlier life: the death of her ailing, abused natural mother, Ellen’s harassment and physical abuse by her drunken father and, following his death, a vengeful grandmother, and brief stays with both of her mother’s sisters, neither of whom wishes to rear Ellen. Details of Ellen’s life at her foster home introduce and close each chapter. Thus, throughout the novel, the isolation, hardship, and fear Ellen experienced in her early years contrast sharply with the security, warmth, and dignity she has found in her new home. In the hands of a less talented novelist, this plot might have led to sentimentality and morbidity, but Gibbons is so skillful in interweaving past and present and in the consistency with which she handles the first-person point of view that Ellen Foster emerges as a triumphant story of survival, growth, and the endurance of human will.
Guided by Ellen’s feisty good nature, honesty, and strong determination, the reader is thrust into the world of destructive family life with the opening sentence of the novel. “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy,” Ellen startlingly announces at the opening of the novel. Despite the shocking content of the sentence, Ellen’s is a voice the reader trusts, that of the adult-child forced to fend for herself. Contemplating the murder of her father was a practical necessity for Ellen, an issue at the core of her struggle to survive. The reader is immediately engaged. He knows to take Ellen seriously, to trust her determination and survival instincts.
In some ways, Ellen bears comparison with that famous orphaned adolescent of American literature, Huck Finn. Both speak their own stories in their own language, making the books that result triumphs of realistic use of the vernacular. Ellen, however, has none of the resistance to education that Huck exhibits. School and reading are important to her; she is eager to see the library bookmobile arrive weekly. A precocious and voracious reader, she had already read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in modern English and the novels of the Brontë sisters. Unlike Huck, moreover, Ellen does not resist the idea of God or church attendance, although she is intelligent enough to question a god who would make someone as mean as her father.
In this last respect, her struggle to escape the abuse of a drunken father, Ellen most resembles Huck. In one poignant scene, she locks herself in a closet for safety when her father brings home a number of drinking buddies, black men who make fun of the frozen dinners Ellen has stored for herself and drink themselves to sleep on the living-room floor. (As a sensible child, Ellen spots her narrative with survival tips, advice on buying food in bulk to save money and on saving time when shopping for school clothes.)
Like Huck also, Ellen faces a conflict over the racial prejudice she has been taught as a child in the South. Early in the novel when Ellen visits the home of her black friend Starletta, she is unwilling to drink from the same cup as Starletta or to eat the food the family offers. Though uneducated and poor, the black family is compassionate and willing to offer Ellen shelter from her abusive father. It is Ellen’s own stubbornness that keeps her silent about her father’s abuse and sexual advances, and part of her growth and maturing comes from the loosening of the blinders of prejudice she has placed on herself. Through her own hardship and suffering, the goodness and generosity of Starletta and her family, and, when Ellen is living with her grandmother and forced to work in the cotton fields, the kindness of Mavis, a black farmhand, Ellen changes. She comes to recognize the guilt she bears for her prejudice toward Starletta as well as the deep love she feels for her friend. She sees finally that a person need not worry about whether someone is black or white. “I am old now,” she comments near the end of the novel, andknow it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look...
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