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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

Ellen Foster’s life is one of having been abused and orphaned and of living with generally unwelcoming relatives. She finally chooses a new mama, a woman who takes in foster children. Having at last found a real home, Ellen changes her name to Foster—for her new foster family.

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Two years after being welcomed into a new home, a place where she has felt safe and loved, Ellen realizes that her foster parents are desperately unhappy. Ellen’s foster mother had married Bill, a man “beneath” her who, even on the night she returns weakened and exhausted from a hospital stay because of heart trouble, treats her cruelly. Ellen takes control of the situation, sending her mother to bed and tending to her drunken father.

The next day, Ellen’s mother commits suicide by taking too much of her medication, and her father refuses to intervene. Ellen lies down with her mother after her father claims her mother just needs sleep. Ellen hears her heart stop beating.

After the funeral, Ellen is trapped in the house with her drunken father, dodging his sexual advances and those of his friends; she has to tolerate his tirades as well. She sneaks money from his meager resources, which he uses mostly to buy alcohol, to eat and to save for some kind of escape. The only safety she can find is with her friend Starletta and her parents, who allow Ellen to spend the night with them when she flees her father’s sexual abuse. Ellen, raised in a still-racist South, deeply appreciates their kindness, but is not quite comfortable among them.

Because she is afraid to return to her father’s house, Ellen first calls her Aunt Betsy, who agrees that she can stay with her. Life is good here. Betsy confides that she has always wanted a daughter but soon tells Ellen it is time for her to go home. Clearly, her mother’s sister is not prepared to take Ellen in and raise her as her own.

Julia, Ellen’s art teacher at the elementary school, discovers Ellen’s bruises and takes her in. Julia and her husband, Roy, are compassionate and somewhat unconventional people, delighted by the courage Ellen shows in not succumbing to self-pity and by her gifts as an artist. Ellen is happy here, and she celebrates her eleventh birthday with Starletta. Soon, however, Ellen must find another home because Julia is not rehired by the school and decides to move away. Thus continues a series of displacements for Ellen, each situation unhappier than the former.

Ellen’s grandmother, mama’s mama, is the next person to take her in, for the court has ordered that Ellen is best off with family. Mama’s mama hates Ellen’s father and blames him for exposing his fragile daughter to a life of misery. She transfers this hatred to Ellen. She sees to her physical needs but speaks cruelly to her, even blaming her granddaughter for her mother’s death.

Finally, mama’s mama puts Ellen to work in the cotton fields, into hot and backbreaking work fit only, in the eyes of mama’s mama, for the African Americans she hires. Ellen endures, however, helped along by Mavis, a field hand who befriends and helps her. Soon, Ellen’s father as well as her grandmother dies. She is then sent to another of her mother’s sisters, Aunt Nadine.

Life with Aunt Nadine seems fine at...

(The entire section contains 887 words.)

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