(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 887 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ellen Foster, Gibbons’s first novel, actually began as a poem written from the point of view of an African American girl (this girl would eventually become Starletta, Ellen’s best friend in the novel). After showing this poem to Louis Rubin, professor of southern literature at the University of North Carolina, Gibbons was encouraged to flesh out the work. It evolved into a novel, with many of the details taken from Gibbons’s own childhood.

The novel, told exclusively from the point of view of ten-year-old Ellen, immediately reveals that the narrator has had a less-than-idyllic childhood: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” This opening line sets the tone for the entire novel; Ellen, though now living in the comfort of her foster mother’s home, has had to grow up too fast. She is far wiser than most ten-year-old girls, and this maturity comes as a result of all that she has seen in her life thus far.

The opening line also serves to take the reader back to the past, to illustrate the events that have led Ellen to the place where she is today. Looking back two years, she shows readers the terrible existence she and her mother led, mainly resulting from Ellen’s father’s alcoholism. Ellen then weaves past and present together in the rest of the novel, subtly contrasting that old life with the life she now leads in the secure home of her foster mother, the home where she decided to take “Foster” as her surname.

As Ellen recounts the events of her life, the picture of a true survivor emerges. She...

(The entire section is 645 words.)