Ellen Foster

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Ellen Foster is the first novel by twenty-seven-year-old Kaye Gibbons, a North Carolina native and recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although one chapter from her novel was published in the initial issue of The Quarterly, Kaye Gibbons was virtually unknown until Ellen Foster achieved praise and national recognition in The New York Times Book Review. The praise is well deserved. Ellen Foster is an accomplished first novel, written with honesty, compassion, and humor, and offering a vividly realized plot, conflict, and central character.

Set in the rural South, where the author grew up, the novel is narrated by the title character, an eleven-year-old orphan who adopts the surname Foster after she begins living with a foster family. Ellen’s story concerns her arduous and painful search for a safe, loving family with whom to spend her adolescent years. The novel alternates segments from Ellen’s present life with her foster mother, whom she calls only “my new mama,” with harrowing recollections from her earlier life: the death of her ailing, abused natural mother, Ellen’s harassment and physical abuse by her drunken father and, following his death, a vengeful grandmother, and brief stays with both of her mother’s sisters, neither of whom wishes to rear Ellen. Details of Ellen’s life at her foster home introduce and close each chapter. Thus, throughout the novel, the isolation, hardship, and fear Ellen experienced in her early years contrast sharply with the security, warmth, and dignity she has found in her new home. In the hands of a less talented novelist, this plot might have led to sentimentality and morbidity, but Gibbons is so skillful in interweaving past and present and in the consistency with which she handles the first-person point of view that Ellen Foster emerges as a triumphant story of survival, growth, and the endurance of human will.

Guided by Ellen’s feisty good nature, honesty, and strong determination, the reader is thrust into the world of destructive family life with the opening sentence of the novel. “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy,” Ellen startlingly announces at the opening of the novel. Despite the shocking content of the sentence, Ellen’s is a voice the reader trusts, that of the adult-child forced to fend for herself. Contemplating the murder of her father was a practical necessity for Ellen, an issue at the core of her struggle to survive. The reader is immediately engaged. He knows to take Ellen seriously, to trust her determination and survival instincts.

In some ways, Ellen bears comparison with that famous orphaned adolescent of American literature, Huck Finn. Both speak their own stories in their own language, making the books that result triumphs of realistic use of the vernacular. Ellen, however, has none of the resistance to education that Huck exhibits. School and reading are important to her; she is eager to see the library bookmobile arrive weekly. A precocious and voracious reader, she had already read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in modern English and the novels of the Brontë sisters. Unlike Huck, moreover, Ellen does not resist the idea of God or church attendance, although she is intelligent enough to question a god who would make someone as mean as her father.

In this last respect, her struggle to escape the abuse of a drunken father, Ellen most resembles Huck. In one poignant scene, she locks herself in a closet for safety when her father brings home a number of drinking buddies, black men who make fun of the frozen dinners Ellen has stored for herself and drink themselves to sleep on the living-room floor. (As a sensible child, Ellen spots her narrative with survival tips, advice on buying food in bulk to save money and on saving time when shopping for school clothes.)

Like Huck also, Ellen faces a conflict over the racial prejudice she has been taught as a child in the South. Early in the novel when Ellen visits the home of her black friend Starletta, she is unwilling to drink from the same cup as Starletta or to eat the food the family offers. Though uneducated and poor, the black family is compassionate and willing to offer Ellen shelter from her abusive father. It is Ellen’s own stubbornness that keeps her silent about her father’s abuse and sexual advances, and part of her growth and maturing comes from the loosening of the blinders of prejudice she has placed on herself. Through her own hardship and suffering, the goodness and generosity of Starletta and her family, and, when Ellen is living with her grandmother and forced to work in the cotton fields, the kindness of Mavis, a black farmhand, Ellen changes. She comes to recognize the guilt she bears for her prejudice toward Starletta as well as the deep love she feels for her friend. She sees finally that a person need not worry about whether someone is black or white. “I am old now,” she comments near the end of the novel, andknow it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The events in Ellen Foster take place over about a year and a half, narrated by Ellen herself in a matter-of-fact, colloquial style that is generally believable as that of an eleven-year-old in the American South, with its occasional malapropisms and simple punctuation (only periods are deemed necessary by Ellen). The narrative alternates between Ellen’s grim past and her glowing present. Ellen’s troubles are over now, but the exact sequence of events in her past unfolds gradually.

Soon after Ellen’s semi-invalid mother returns from the hospital after a heart operation, the heartlessness and drunken abuse of Ellen’s father drive the weak, despairing woman to suicide, despite Ellen’s efforts to protect and save her. After the funeral, Ellen’s maternal relatives, a grandmother and two aunts who had disapproved of the marriage, leave Ellen to her father, preferring to ignore his alternating neglect and abuse of his daughter. Ellen’s father, Bill, falls into an alcoholic depression, neglecting himself and his farm. Ellen is determined to take care of herself, and him, if necessary. She manages to buy food, pay the bills, and save some money for herself. She cooks for herself, dresses in her mother’s clothes, goes to school, and joins the Girl Scouts, presenting a relatively normal façade to the world.

Ellen’s only refuge outside of school is the home of her friend Starletta, whom she describes as “not as smart as I am...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gibbons was twenty-seven when this, her first novel, was published by a small North Carolina press to immediate applause from national reviewers. Several well-established Southern fiction writers, including Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, and Elizabeth Spencer, praised Ellen Foster as original and authentic. Though a few reviewers thought that it bordered on sentimentality, most agreed that Gibbons’ characterization of Ellen and her narrative voice transcended any misgivings about the plot.

Gibbons is one of several Southern women novelists whose work came to national attention in the 1980’s, among them Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Jill McCorkle, some of whom studied together at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Several of their novels also deal with young girls or women overcoming prejudice, poverty, and oppression. It would be unwarranted to suggest that these writers influenced one another, but all are certainly influenced by their experiences as Southern women. As in Ellen Foster, the focus in some works by these writers is on re-visioning, as unique individuals, characters who have been overlooked or stereotyped in the past.

Ellen Foster appears again briefly in Gibbons’ A Virtuous Woman (1989) as a friend of one of the novel’s major characters. This novel and A Cure for Dreams (1991) and Charms for the Easy Life (1992) center on strong women who must overcome various circumstances, and critics have commented on the literary and narrative techniques by which Gibbons empowers these female characters. As critic Ralph C. Wood noted, however, Gibbons’ women are never merely victims, her men never merely victimizers (though they rarely display the compassion and resourcefulness exercised by the women around them). Ellen Foster’s story seems to end happily, but in Gibbons’ later works, the power of some women characters lies in their ability to endure the hard realities of life and death with strength and humor and to learn from them, rather than in simplistic happy endings. Gibbons has the ability to deal subtly with difficult, even tragic characters and events without falling into despair or anger.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Conservatism in the 1980s
The existence of Julia—the former 1960s flower child turned respectable art...

(The entire section is 803 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The first-person narration in Ellen Foster makes the book distinctive. Ellen's unique...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The first-person narration in Ellen Foster makes the book distinctive. Ellen's unique perspective—that of a child lost amidst the...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ellen Foster belongs not only to the Southern tradition in American literature, but also to that of first-person coming-of-age...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

When Kaye Gibbons published Ellen Foster in 1987, the novel—her first met with an enthusiastic audience. Critics admired Gibbons's...

(The entire section is 1254 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the history of race relations in the American South during the second half of the 20th century. How did integration change the lives...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883), the sensible and resourceful Huck narrates the story, in which he, a...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons (1995) is narrated by Hattie, who looks back from adulthood at how her mother's mental illness affected...

(The entire section is 148 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ellen Foster was adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie starring Glynnis O'Connor, Jena Malone, Julie Harris, and Debra...

(The entire section is 43 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Ellen Foster was adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie starring Glynnis O'Connor, Jena Malone, Julie Harris, and Debra...

(The entire section is 39 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Pearl K. Bell, "Southern Discomfort," The New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 9, February 29, 1988, pp....

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bell, Pearl K. “Southern Discomfort.” The New Republic 198, no. 9 (February 29, 1988): 38-41. Bell finds Ellen’s unsentimental voice and tenacious character to be the most compelling factor in the novel’s success. She applauds Gibbons’ vivid portrayal of Southern life, including its racism.

Hoffman, Alice. “Shopping for a New Family.” The New York Times Book Review 92 (May 31, 1987): 13. Hoffman describes the ways in which Gibbons engages the reader’s interest and trust in her narrator, Ellen, and comments on the author’s use of humor to prevent the novel from slipping into melodrama.


(The entire section is 229 words.)