Ellen Foster

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2184

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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 over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife.

It is a measure of Ellen’s growth that by the end of the novel, when she invites her friend Starletta for the weekend and sees her sleeping in her white friend’s bed, she recognizes that it is Starletta who has come “even farther” than Ellen herself.

This racial conflict and the emphasis on familial and racial relationships remind the reader that Ellen Foster is a deeply Southern novel, though it is by no means a regional work, limited in its appeal. Rather, the novel exhibits a number of those traits and concerns that have come to be identified with the body of Southern literature published in the twentieth century. Besides the focus on familial and racial relationships, and the guilt and sense of sin that racism has instilled in many Southern whites, the novel evinces a rootedness in the details of everyday life and a strong sense of place common to Southern literature. Ellen frequently comments on clothing and money and thinks compulsively about food—perhaps mirroring in her physical hunger her deep emotional needs. She is a keen observer also of the smells, objects, and living conditions in the different homes she visits. Many of her descriptions focus on luxury or its absence, calling attention to the class and racial divisions that still prevail in many parts of the South. For example, while Ellen’s grandmother, her “mama’s mama,” has a home filled with expensive furniture and antiques, what Ellen calls “Egyptian type candy jars,” Starletta and her family live in a one-room house with no inside toilet, a dirty place with “little sticks all between the floorboards.” Their house with its “fried meat” smell offers a realistic look at the poverty of rural blacks in the South at the same time that it calls attention to the social and racial injustices that linger in the region.

Perhaps the two most strongly Southern characteristics of Ellen Foster are its vivid, fresh language with heavy reliance on colloquial Southern speech patterns and its use of the grotesque. From the beginning of the novel, Ellen’s language is honest and direct. Her voice is clearly that of an adolescent white girl who always refers to her father as “daddy” and blacks as “colored.” Moreover, there is no direct dialogue in the novel; everything is related in Ellen’s own words, giving the novel authenticity and, at times, humor. In describing her parents, Ellen speaks of her father as a “big wind-up toy of a man.” Her mother, who dies of an overdose of heart medication, “has not had a good heart” since suffering from “romantic fever” in her youth, an apt linguistic play on “rheumatic fever” in the light of her marriage to an abusive husband. When Ellen must go to court for the question of child custody to be settled, the art teacher, Julia, who acts as temporary guardian with her husband, dresses Ellen in “lace stockings and black patting leather shoes.” Later, when Ellen spots the woman she wants as her “new mama” at church and learns that she has a foster family, with characteristic honesty Ellen says she has heard that the woman takes in everything from “orphans to stray cats,” which “fit my description perfect.” Such descriptions add poignancy as well as humor to the novel and offer ample evidence of the author’s keen ear for fresh, witty language and the patterns of everyday Southern speech.

This same ear is also evident in the uses of the grotesque that occur in the novel. Since the deaths of close relatives repeatedly haunt Ellen’s life, quite expectedly her attention focuses frequently on the details of dying. After her mother dies in her arms, Ellen builds a strong resentment toward her father and a determination not to be found with another dead person. When her father does not come home the Christmas following his wife’s death, Ellen comments that maybe he “drove off in the ditch somewhere and froze to death. Nobody would be out on Christmas to find him before he got blue and solid.” Then, when her father does die of a ruptured blood vessel, Ellen says “he had a vein or a head fuse explode so he died.” Perhaps the most grotesque details describe her grandmother’s death in bed while Ellen is living with her. “Too smart to let somebody find” her “with a dead lady the second time around,” Ellen decorates her grandmother’s body and bed, putting a Sunday hat on the dead woman’s head and arranging artificial flowers around the body so “she looked set off like a picture.” “I stood over her,” Ellen comments, “hoping she was the last dead person I knew for a while.”

The central struggle of Ellen’s life resurfaces with the death of her grandmother: the quest for a safe home with “somebody good” to love her. It is this theme which gives Ellen Foster its power and universality. Driven from her home first by an abusive father, Ellen seeks refuge with her Aunt Betsy, only to be sent home again after one weekend. When she is rescued from her father temporarily by one of her teachers, Ellen is comfortable but wary, and justifiably so since the courts quickly place her in the custody of her grandmother, a cruel woman who abuses her grandchild in order to avenge her daughter’s death. When Ellen’s father dies, her grandmother forbids her to weep or grieve, punctuating her command with repeated slaps. With her grandmother’s death, Ellen is thus once more at the mercy of her mother’s family and the courts. This time she lives briefly with her Aunt Nadine and her spoiled daughter, Dora. When an argument with her aunt leads to her being thrown out of the house, Ellen seeks shelter with the foster family she has seen at church. In a heartrending scene, she arrives on foot at her “new mama’s” house on Christmas Day and offers to pay for her stay with the money she has saved. She has even dressed herself in her fanciest outfit so that she would look like she is “worth something.” Though at first Ellen cannot believe that she will be able to stay, she has at last found a home she will not have to leave, a place where children are respected and loved, where there is laughter, play, and compassion.

The end of Ellen’s quest drives home two of the novel’s central concerns: the pain and hardship of a childhood without loving parents and the meaning and importance of good parenting. The good people in this novel who care for Ellen—Starletta’s parents; Julia, the art teacher, and her husband; Mavis, the black farmhand; Ellen’s “new mama”—all share traits of tolerance, compassion, and a willingness to support and encourage children regardless of financial limitations. Ironically, those with the most material wealth—Ellen’s grandmother, her aunts Betsy and Nadine—appear as selfish, petty women. They are unaware of or unconcerned with the fact that what each child needs, as Ellen says, is “somebody decent to love her good.” It is this theme, so vividly and skillfully conveyed through the heroine’s own story, that makes Ellen Foster a valuable contribution not only to the tradition of Southern letters but also to American literature at large.

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