Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760
Ellen Foster draws on several traditions, including that of a female Bildungsroman (the story of a young person’s growth and development), the plucky orphan, and the Southern heroine—the belle with an iron will. Yet Ellen is no Scarlett O’Hara, but rather an abused child from a poor, rural family who finds her own spiritual and intellectual resources for survival. Kaye Gibbons’ skillful rendering of Ellen’s gritty yet naïve child’s voice and her interweaving of Ellen’s struggles to survive her gruesome family with idyllic yet down-to-earth episodes from Ellen’s life with her beloved foster family make this short first novel unusually effective. Critics greeted it with nearly unanimous praise.
Though Ellen’s family members, with the exception of her mother, may seem incredibly evil, most of them would probably appear as perfectly normal, respectable people if one did not see them through Ellen’s eyes. Ellen’s alcoholic father is truly vicious, but the evil of Ellen’s aunts is mostly banal complacency and self-absorption. Ellen’s grandmother has allowed her life and her mind to be poisoned by bitterness against her daughter and her daughter’s husband; when one realizes that her hatred has driven her to the edge of insanity, her vengeance on Ellen—making her work like a slave and torturing her by blaming her for her mother’s death—seems understandable, though no less unforgivable. That Ellen attempts to overcome her grandmother’s hate indicates her strength of mind; she will not allow her life to be poisoned by bitterness.
Ellen’s strength and self-reliance form the central theme of the book, as suggested by its epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” Although Ellen acknowledges, sometimes indirectly, that she has been hurt, frightened, and sad, at times overwhelmingly, she is never self-pitying. Part of the novel’s effectiveness lies in Gibbons’ emphasis on Ellen’s determined efforts to work around and through her troubles, rather than on the troubles themselves. For example, Ellen recounts in detail the food that she found and how she prepared it while her father sank deeper into an alcoholic cycle of neglect and abuse. She describes the methods that she devised for clothes shopping on her own. Critics have commented that food and clothing are metaphors for the nurture that Ellen seeks throughout the novel. Another resource is learning. Ellen is a reader, which is perhaps her mother’s legacy. An encyclopedia, the bookmobile, school, and her precious microscope (a Christmas present that she buys for herself) all enable Ellen to escape briefly from cold reality. As Ellen labors in her grandmother’s cotton fields, she mentally recites poems that she has memorized.
Ellen’s resourcefulness and mixture of maturity and innocence seem true to what is known about the ways in which abused children cope with their circumstances. Ellen’s efforts to cover up or compensate for her father’s neglect and her inability to expose his molestation of her, even though she knows he is at fault, are typical. Her attempts to care for others and to make herself acceptable, or at least unobtrusive, are also some of the ways in which abused children learn to exercise some control over their lives. Another way is to take up something in which they can achieve mastery; Ellen, for example, joins the Girl Scouts and earns all the badges that she can until she believes there is no more to be accomplished in that particular arena. Yet Ellen remains a child who often finds herself, for good or ill, at the mercy of the adults around her.
Gibbons has also captured the authentic flavor of Southern small-town life through Ellen’s colloquial style and the details that she includes. The interconnectedness of families and neighbors, both black and white; the hypocritical gentility of middle-class, churchgoing people; the food; the landscape; and the weather all weave their way unobtrusively but effectively through Ellen’s narrative. Part of this Southern sensibility is Ellen’s initial assumption that, no matter how awful her life is, at least she is not black like Starletta. Ironically, whenever Ellen begins to feel safe, first with Julia and Roy, then with her foster family, she tests that safety by asking to invite Starletta to visit. As the novel progresses, Ellen finds that her most compelling models of family happiness are the poor black families she visits. She is unable to admit that human goodness and human cruelty are unrestricted by race, however, until she has passed her own trials.