Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
Ellen Foster is Kaye Gibbons’s first novel, begun while taking a class with the eminent scholar of southern literature Louis Rubin, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rubin had encouraged her to finish and publish the novel with Algonquin Press. Some autobiographical elements characterize the story: Gibbons was born in the South, in Nash County, North Carolina, in 1960. Her mother committed suicide by overdosing on pills when Gibbons was ten years old, and her abusive and alcoholic father drank himself to death as a young man. She subsequently lived with relatives and foster families, until finally finding a home where she was accepted and happy.
For Ellen Foster, Gibbons won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. She also won the Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Prize in Creative Writing in 1987. The novel was produced by Hallmark Hall of Fame for CBS television in December, 1997, and, together with her novel A Virtuous Woman (1989), was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998. Ellen Foster then remained on The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks.
Gibbons writes within a distinguished tradition of southern literature that extends from the southern renaissance, which, beyond the revolutionary work of William Faulkner, had established a powerful tradition of women writers, including Caroline Gordon, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and Jill McKorkle.
Ellen Foster also is celebrated as a coming-of-age story like the novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger. Ellen reminds one of Huck and Holden, with their honest and individual voices and their exposure of the hypocrisies and cruelties of adult society. Like the virtually orphaned Huck, who in his own mind risks damnation to save his friend—the escaped slave Jim—Ellen includes her friend Starletta in her life, despite her own discomfort about the younger child’s race, and finally comes to see Starletta as someone who lives a life even more difficult than her own. Ellen regrets and renounces the prejudice she inherited from her family and from life in the South.
Gibbons’s subsequent novels have been lauded for their strong, self-reliant women characters, who face the challenges of love and marriage, children, abandonment, poverty, and prejudice—including racism and sexism—without giving in to self-pity. Whether contemporary or historical, these women, like Ellen, speak in a vernacular that captures the cadences and eccentricities of southern and individual speech without the cumbersome spellings of dialect, another of Gibbons’s strengths as a writer.
Ellen’s is the first of these series of voices. In Ellen Foster, quotation marks are absent, as Ellen is allowed to breathlessly tell her story. All of the words are hers, including the words of the other characters (their voices are translated through Ellen). Despite her age and the horror of her experiences, she is a trustworthy narrator. After all, she begins with the admission that she had once thought of ways to “kill” daddy. Such forthrightness could suggest a deranged or a rigorously honest storyteller. As the narrative proceeds, it is clear the latter is the case.
Ellen’s grammatical errors and colorful sayings suggest her age and upbringing, her southern heritage, and her particular cast of mind, including her precocity. Sometimes her errors, like her mother’s “romantic fever” (rheumatic fever), suggest truths beyond those a child should understand. Her grammatical errors, like “his own self” or “somebody you know good,” show the influence of her father’s class rather than the class of her mother. Other particulars of her speech are simply southern, “like throw a fit” or “cut the lights off.” Still others are just popular slang, like her grandmother’s being “off her rocker” or the occasional mild profanity, like “chickenshit.” The mix makes for a highly individual, but at the same time clearly regional, voice.
In the narrative structure, Ellen alternately recounts her past and celebrates her present. The juxtapositions are meaningful. In general, they contrast the deprivation, disorder and unpredictability, and suffering of her old life with life in her latest foster mother’s home. More specifically, Ellen contrasts feeling trapped between Dora and Dora’s mama in a car on the way to her mother’s funeral with the freedom of riding all day on her horse, Dolphin.
The theme most discussed with regard to Ellen Foster is race. An African American character, Starletta, is central to the story’s unfolding, inasmuch as Ellen’s friendship with Starletta demonstrates Ellen’s growing awareness of racism. The novel depicts the changing South, especially its racial climate, in a realistic way. It is set in a turbulent time, a time in which Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated (1968), in which U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act (1968), and in which the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld busing as a means of integrating schools (1971). Ellen and Starletta clearly attend an integrated school, though socially the two races at the school remain far apart.
The lingering importance of class distinctions and their painful consequences are embodied in Ellen’s parents’ tragic marriage. Furthermore, that art teacher Julia, a 1960’s “flower child” raised in the East, is not rehired, implies the southern resistance to difference and progress and to outsiders.
The myth of a bucolic, slower-paced South is likewise exploded as Julia and Roy fail to realize their dream of farming in and teaching in the South. Churchgoing has not tempered the various cruelties, hypocrisies, and prejudices Ellen encounters in her relatives. Family, so sacred in the South, helps Ellen find neither refuge nor love.
However, the novel confirms the generous humanity of individual characters, especially Ellen’s resilience, humor, self-awareness, and capacity to love beyond her own prejudices. Institutions, too, display a sort of humanity: The elementary school that saves Ellen from her father, finds her a loving temporary home, and even houses the well-meaning, if less than helpful, psychologist, benefits Ellen.
Finally, among the many motifs lending unity to the narrative is food. Ellen is a hungry child in every way. The contrast of the meagerness of meals with her mother and father and of her near starvation with her father, with the plentiful, regular, and even ritual mealtimes with her foster mother, suggests how far Ellen has come in her circumstances and her spirit. During Starletta’s visit with Ellen in her new home, Ellen does not fail to remark that soon they will have supper and maybe even some cake. All is well.