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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959

Alienation and Loneliness Ellen Foster's story is one of movement, from alienation and loneliness to acceptance and belonging. Ellen herself effects this major change by force of her own will. Realizing her own family "is and always has been crumbly old brick," not meant to stick together, she targets a...

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Alienation and Loneliness
Ellen Foster's story is one of movement, from alienation and loneliness to acceptance and belonging. Ellen herself effects this major change by force of her own will. Realizing her own family "is and always has been crumbly old brick," not meant to stick together, she targets a "foster" family that looks nice and decides to belong to them. She saves her money and on Christmas Day appears on the foster family's doorstep, ready to present $160 to her new mama and secure a place in the family.

Before Ellen targets the foster family as the one she wants, she is nearly alone in the world—her own mama is dead, her father neglects and abuses her, her aunts and grandmother don't want her, and her only friend, Starletta, is a little black girl who eats dirt and appears not to speak. While Starletta's parents are kind, Ellen is always aware they are "colored" and, in the context of the Southern town where they all live, she is not "supposed to" be friendly with them.

Her outsider status is emphasized by the fact that most of the happy families she knows are black and she "wanted one [that is] white." She feels she cannot be a part of either Starletta's or Mavis's families, both of whom are so closeknit. Ellen's sense of herself as "not just a face in the crowd," but as someone deserving of a place in a loving family, finally enables her to find such a place and gain a sense of belonging.

Coming of Age
Ellen Foster is a coming-of-age novel in the sense that it portrays the defining events of Ellen's young life: her mother's death when Ellen is ten, her subsequent discovery that her remaining family isn't really a family at all, her planning and achieving acceptance into a new, better family, and her learning, through it all, that her black friend Starletta is worthy of her love and admiration in spite of her skin color and background.

Ellen's coming of age begins when she is propelled into the world after her mother dies and her father attempts to sexually abuse her. She struggles to find a new family and her subsequent discoveries about life and people come from her distinct way of seeing the world. She is empowered by what she learns.

Living with the remaining members of her mother's family, she learns that cruelty comes in many forms and also what she does not want in a family. Similarly, she discovers what she does want by observing other, happier, families. She notes that the happier families she sees are usually "colored" and concludes that racism is meaningless and based on lies.

At age eleven Ellen begins to shape her own life with a vision of what she wants and then she goes after it.

Friendship
Ellen's friendship with Starletta, a black girl younger than herself, is a refuge for Ellen through much of the novel. In spite of Starletta's silence, she and her family represent a kind of safety net for Ellen. Starletta and her mother attend Ellen's mother's funeral, and Ellen wishes she could sit with them because they are the only mourners that Ellen can't condemn for being mean-spirited.

When Ellen is alone on Christmas or when her father becomes abusive, she goes to Starletta's house, knowing that Starletta's family will welcome her and make her feel safe.

Starletta's presence makes Ellen feel secure in another way too. Ellen feels superior to Starletta, criticizing her for eating dirt, picking at her bug bites, and breaking her crayons. She tells Starletta, Ellen knows she is not "supposed to" be friends with a black girl, but she says Starletta is "more fun" than she is and she knows Starletta will always be glad to see her. Through her friendship with Starletta, Ellen learns empathy and humility. She comes to see Starletta's life as more difficult than her own, and that she has no right to feel superior to anyone. Ellen also learns about happy families from her association with Starletta, and it is this understanding that enables her to find her own secure place in the world.

Race and Racism
Ellen is conditioned by her environment—the rural South—to look down on black people. She tries to figure out whether "colored" people are different from her. Are their germs different, is their food different? At Starletta's house, Ellen avoids drinking out of the same glass as Starletta or eating the "colored" biscuits Starletta's mother offers her. She likes Starletta even though she feels superior to her and sorry for her.

Ellen scrupulously observes Mavis and Starletta's families. She sees the love and kindness they have for each other, and knows her own extended family is not this way.

By the end of the novel, Ellen realizes color doesn't matter. Her own white family, given the chance, would stab her in the back. "Sometimes I even think I was cut out to be colored and I got bleached and sent to the wrong bunch of folks."

Her desire to have Starletta sleep over at her new house reflects how far she has come. She wants to entertain Starletta and make her feel special by having her new mama embroider towels with Starletta's initials. At first, Ellen is self-conscious about breaking "every rule in the book" by having a black girl sleep over, but then she remembers "that they changed that rule. So it does not make any sense for me to feel like I'm breaking the law." Ellen has learned that what she thinks is more important than what "the rules" are. She has seen how those in authority don't always know what is right or what is best for her.

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