In The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons revisits the memorable character that she introduced to a wide readership nearly twenty years ago. In that earlier novel, Ellen Foster (1987), the title character, an eleven-year-old girl from rural North Carolina, recounted the story of her early life with a suicidal mother and abusive father. Relying almost completely on her own native intelligence and personal perceptive powers, however, Ellen managed to survive the loss of both parents, the active malevolence of her grandmother, the indifference of her aunt, and the complacent incompetence of the social service system, eventually to build some semblance of a happy home life in foster care.
In this second novel, Ellen, now fifteen years old, is confronted with a new set of challenges, each one related to her new identity as a teenager. In some ways, this second volume in the author’s coming-of-age saga can be compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). In fact, Ellen herself forces this comparison when she refers repeatedly to the sixteen-year-old protagonist of that earlier work, Holden Caulfield, as if his situation were similar to hers.
In fact, Ellen Foster is essentially the antithesis of Holden Caulfield. While he is cynical and misanthropic, convinced that he is living in a world dominated by “phoniness,” she clings to the memory of her mother’s love and cultivates a coterie of supportive individuals. While Holden seems unconcerned about his expulsion from prep school, in part because he feels that formal education is a fraud, Ellen plots to gain early admittance to college out of a devotion to reading and a desire for knowledge. While he turns a life of privilege into an exercise in nihilism, she transcends a disastrous upbringing to find her own positive momentum and meaning.
The novel begins and ends with the author’s creative invocation of a real-life personage, Derek Curtis Bok, who served as president of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991. The preamble to the first chapter is a letter to Dr. Bok from Ellen, making a case not only for early admission but also for financial aid. Near the end of the narrative, as a catalyst for the protagonist’s reversal of fortune, Bok contacts Ellen’s family lawyer to gain corroboration of the claims made in her unsolicited letter. In doing so, Bok sets in motion events that restore to Ellen her proper inheritance and resolve her money worries.
Ellen’s letter to Bok introduces the reader to the main character’s compelling voice, a particular strength of the first novel and one that critics continue to praise regarding this sequel. Ellen’s tale is told in the first-person voice, with no quotation marks applied to the speech of the other characters. This lack of conventional punctuation gives the text, at times, a breathless quality, reflective, in part, of the narrator’s nervous energy and her desire to live a larger life by cramming as much as she can into every moment. “Nothing you think, feel, or do should be watered down,” Ellen asserts.
The letter also brims with evidence of a lively mind as yet inadequately channeled and cultivated, as indicated by her erratic control of the subjunctive mood and her quirky alternative vocabulary, such as her use of “disdone” for “undone.”
Like Holden Caulfield’s compelling first-person narrative but without his profanity and negativism, Ellen’s story sweeps the reader into the world of a bright teenager grappling with the concerns of that particular stage of human development. Foremost is the matter of equilibrium. Ellen’s childhood was so chaotic and so unpredictable that she yearns for some stability. This stability she appears to achieve by means of four basic elements: a caring foster parent, an ordered space, an established rhythm of activity, and a devotion to language.
First, there is her guardian, Laura, whom Ellen compares periodically to the American actor Ava Gardner (1922-1990), partially because of her beauty and partially because of regional association. Gardner was born, according to Ellen, “a few roads over” near the small, agriculture-based town of Brogden in Johnson County, North Carolina.
Laura helps Ellen and her friends negotiate a world often dominated by “hard adults” totally lacking in empathy....
(The entire section is 1795 words.)