Ellen Foster, the protagonist and narrator. Eleven years old when the story begins, Ellen never reveals her original last name. She has taken the name Foster to identify with her chosen family, whom she knows, at first, only as “the foster family.” Unusually perceptive and resourceful, Ellen, like many abused children, tries to be self-sufficient. Throughout her struggles, she never compromises her integrity. Ellen’s strength, however, is sometimes a disguise for real suffering. Her hatred of her abusive father and her desire to find a loving family motivate her even in the darkest times.
Bill, Ellen’s father. An abusive alcoholic, he is the epitome of what Southerners call “trash.” A shiftless farmer, his main interests in life are liquor and making other people suffer. After driving Ellen’s mother to suicide, Bill attempts to make Ellen his substitute wife. Ellen’s hatred of him is mixed with a certain twisted loyalty that is typical of abused children.
Starletta, Ellen’s friend. Starletta is black and seems a little younger than Ellen. Ellen feels superior to her but loves her loyally. Starletta and her family are, at first, Ellen’s only refuge from her own wretched home life. Ellen and Starletta’s friendship is marred by Ellen’s unself-conscious racism. Learning the emptiness of prejudice may be the greatest challenge Ellen must face.
Julia, Ellen’s art teacher. A transplanted Northerner who gleefully recalls her hippie days in the 1960’s, Julia is the only person who cares enough about Ellen to notice her bruises and realize that she is being abused. Julia and her husband, Roy, have themselves appointed as Ellen’s guardians for a time.
Ellen’s maternal grandmother
Ellen’s maternal grandmother, a wealthy woman who has always controlled others with her will and her money. Ellen’s grandmother transfers her hatred of Ellen’s father to Ellen. She takes Ellen in, partly out of family duty but mostly for revenge. She forces Ellen to work in the cotton fields and constantly compares her to her hated father. She also blames Ellen for her mother’s death.
Nadine, Ellen’s aunt. A complacent, insensitive widow, Nadine spoils her daughter Dora and treats caring for Ellen as an unpleasant duty. After Ellen’s grandmother dies, Nadine grudgingly takes in Ellen. Her attempts to treat Ellen kindly are well intentioned but ultimately hypocritical. When Ellen refuses to act the part of the humble orphan, Nadine rejects her.
Ellen’s foster mother
Ellen’s foster mother, a court-approved foster parent to several girls, including a teenage single mother and her baby. When Ellen spots her in church, she decides at once that the woman will be her new mother. This woman provides Ellen with everything her family of origin could or would not. Although she admits to some faults, she appears almost too good to be true in her unconditional love for her foster children, perhaps only because she is in such marked contrast to Ellen’s relatives.
Ellen, the eleven-year-old narrator of the novel, renames herself "Ellen Foster" when she decides she wants to be part of the "Foster family"—or foster family—she sees at church. Ellen is wise beyond her years because of the cruel treatment she has received from her "real" family, and she dreams and plans constantly about how to get herself a new family. She is a determined, resilient, resourceful girl who knows what she needs and how to fulfill those needs. She buys her own Christmas gifts and mix-and-match clothes, and she cooks frozen TV dinners for herself when...
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her father is not around. However, while Ellen is self-reliant, she also knows when she needs help, and she is driven to find the right place for herself in the world. She studies other families—Starletta's family, the "Foster family," Mavis's family—and makes mental notes of what she does and does not want in a family. As she watches Mavis and her family, Ellen declares she "would bust open if [she] did not get one of them for [her] own self soon."
She is troubled by her conflicting feelings about Starletta. At first she believes she is superior to Starletta because she is white and Starletta is black, but she comes to realize that the ones to watch out for are "the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch." Skin color does not determine what is inside that skin. White people can be low and evil.
After Ellen moves into her new mama's home and finds her safe haven at last, she has the capacity to think about her relationship with Starletta in larger terms. She does the unthinkable in this racist Southern town and invites her black friend to sleep over at her new house. As they wait for supper in Ellen's room, Ellen recognizes that "I came a long way to get here but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther.... And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe."
Ellen's mama dies in the second chapter of the novel, and it is her loss that sets in motion the disintegration of Ellen's world. A gentle woman who married beneath her in the eyes of her well-to-do family, Ellen's mama endures the abuses of her husband; returning home from the hospital after heart surgery she drags herself around the kitchen, waiting on him as he yells insults at her. Unable to stand her life with him any longer, Ellen's mama swallows nearly the whole bottle of her heart pills and dies, lying in her bed with Ellen beside her.
A self-destructive and selfish alcoholic, Ellen's daddy is abusive toward his wife and daughter. For Ellen, he is "a monster ... a mistake for a person." His cruelty to Ellen's mother is the reason for her suicide. Following his wife's death, he neglects Ellen, staying away from home for long periods and leaving Ellen alone in the house. When he is home, he often brings groups of friends home with him to drink. They take over the house and frighten Ellen, who hides when they are around. When her father begins to make sexual advances toward her, Ellen runs away. In the book's opening sentence, Ellen confesses "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." She hates him for the way he treats her mama and her.
Ellen's mama's family also hate Ellen's daddy because they feel their daughter and sister married beneath her, and they condemn his cruel treatment of her. Mean, angry, and vengeful, Ellen's maternal grandmother hates Ellen's daddy for his treatment of her daughter and extends her hostile feelings to Ellen. A wealthy woman, she had not wanted her daughter to marry Ellen's daddy, and now that he has caused her daughter's death, Ellen's grandmother is enraged.
When Ellen's daddy makes sexual advances toward her, she runs away, and Ellen's case ultimately ends up in court, where a judge sends her to live with her grandmother because he believes families should stay together. Ellen thinks, "He had us all mixed up with a different group of folks," but she goes to live with her grandmother, who sends her every day to work in her cotton fields to get rid of her and to get revenge on Ellen's daddy. Her grandmother accuses Ellen of helping her daddy kill her mama and of being "in cahoots" with him. When her grandmother becomes desperately ill with the flu, Ellen nurses her and is by her side when she dies.
Ellen notices the woman who is to become her "new mama" in church, and it becomes clear to Ellen that this woman has dignity and character and "eyes that would flush all the ugly out of your system." After her own mama dies, Ellen thinks constantly about how to get a new, better family, and once she starts noticing the woman in church, she is determined to make this woman her new mama.
Once the woman does take Ellen into her home, which turns out to be a foster home for children, she is all that Ellen could have hoped for in a mama: she is warm, nurturing, and supportive, and yet her home has structure and discipline. She is "always willing to help if it matters to you"; she not only allows Ellen to invite Starlerta to sleep over, she also embroiders towels with Starletta's initial at Ellen's request, so that Starletta will feel especially welcome. In her new family—"the Foster family"—Ellen is made to feel she belongs.
For a time, Ellen also lives with Julia, the art teacher at Ellen's school, who kindly takes Ellen home to live with her after she notices a bruise on Ellen's arm, and Ellen admits her father has been hurting her. Julia is a good-hearted free spirit who loves to garden and to be silly. Ellen says "she used to be a flower child, but now she is low key so she can hold a job." She treats Ellen like she is special. Julia's husband, Roy, amazes Ellen with his ability to cook, wash dishes, and clean. He is also an enthusiastic organic gardener. Like Julia, Roy is kind to Ellen.
Another female figure who comes to Ellen's rescue is Mavis, a large, strong, African-American woman who helps her do the hard work in the cotton fields where Ellen's grandmother puts her to work. Ellen observes that Mavis's family is happy, and this prompts her to make "a list of all that a family should have."
Other characters get involved in Ellen's situation but lack either the insight or the generosity to help. Among these are her mother's sisters and the psychologist with whom she meets at school—"The man [who] comes and asks me questions about the past," according to Ellen. She hates talking to him and notices that he twists what she says to suit himself. One of Ellen's mother's two sisters, Aunt Betsy, is willing to have Ellen come stay with her for a weekend, but ultimately will not help her or take responsibility for her. Her mother's second sister, Aunt Nadine, is a self-important, selfish phony who treats Ellen as if she is beneath her. Aunt Nadine avoids the truth, refusing, for instance, to admit that her daughter Dora still wets her pants at the age of ten. A spoiled only-child, Dora is taught by her mother to look down on Ellen and not to see the truth. Nadine takes charge at Ellen's mama's funeral, but Ellen is disgusted by her pretension and cheerfulness as she chats with the undertaker. According to Ellen, when Aunt Nadine "is not redecorating or shopping with Dora she demonstrates food slicers in your home."
When Ellen goes to live with Dora and Aunt Nadine after her grandmother dies, she sees that she is not welcome and decides to keep to herself as much as possible. For Christmas, after Ellen gives Nadine and Dora a painting she worked hard to make, they ridicule the painting behind her back. Ellen's Christmas gift from them is a pack of white art paper, a meager gift next to Dora's mountain of toys and clothes. Crushed and angered by their selfishness, Ellen tells Nadine she is crazy and that she and Dora are "the same as the people who would not believe the world was round." Aunt Nadine thereupon tells Ellen to get out, that she never wanted Ellen to come, and that she and Dora just want to live in their house alone. This is Ellen's impetus to make her move to find herself a new family.
Among the most sympathetic characters in the novel are Starletta and her family. Starletta is Ellen's only friend. Younger than Ellen, she is an African-American girl whose intact, happy family provides a temporary refuge for Ellen when life with her father becomes unbearable. Starletta "hates to talk," according to Ellen, and she does not speak throughout the novel; rather, Ellen projects her own emotions and longing for security onto her silent friend. Ellen loves Starletta and says of her, "She is not as smart as I am but she is more fun." However, Ellen is confused about her feelings for Starletta because Starletta is "colored," and Ellen has been conditioned by her white Southern world to feel superior to her. Understanding that Ellen's life alone with her father is hard, Starletta's mama is kind to Ellen and welcomes the child into her home. Starletta's parents provide a warm and loving home for Starletta, a fact that does not escape Ellen's notice. Like his wife, Starletta's father is hospitable and warm toward Ellen. He is a family man, and Ellen notices that "he is the only colored man that does not buy liquor from my daddy."