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 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...
(The entire section is 2,161 words.)