Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Ellen Foster’s life is one of having been abused and orphaned and of living with generally unwelcoming relatives. She finally chooses a new mama, a woman who takes in foster children. Having at last found a real home, Ellen changes her name to Foster—for her new foster family.
Two years after being welcomed into a new home, a place where she has felt safe and loved, Ellen realizes that her foster parents are desperately unhappy. Ellen’s foster mother had married Bill, a man “beneath” her who, even on the night she returns weakened and exhausted from a hospital stay because of heart trouble, treats her cruelly. Ellen takes control of the situation, sending her mother to bed and tending to her drunken father.
The next day, Ellen’s mother commits suicide by taking too much of her medication, and her father refuses to intervene. Ellen lies down with her mother after her father claims her mother just needs sleep. Ellen hears her heart stop beating.
After the funeral, Ellen is trapped in the house with her drunken father, dodging his sexual advances and those of his friends; she has to tolerate his tirades as well. She sneaks money from his meager resources, which he uses mostly to buy alcohol, to eat and to save for some kind of escape. The only safety she can find is with her friend Starletta and her parents, who allow Ellen to spend the night with them when she flees her father’s sexual abuse. Ellen, raised in a still-racist South, deeply appreciates their kindness, but is not quite comfortable among them.
Because she is afraid to return to her father’s house, Ellen first calls her Aunt Betsy, who agrees that she can stay with her. Life is good here. Betsy confides that she has always wanted a daughter but soon tells Ellen it is time for her to go home. Clearly, her mother’s sister is not prepared to take Ellen in and raise her as her own.
Julia, Ellen’s art teacher at the elementary school, discovers Ellen’s bruises and takes her in. Julia and her husband, Roy, are compassionate and somewhat unconventional people, delighted by the courage Ellen shows in not succumbing to self-pity and by her gifts as an artist. Ellen is happy here, and she celebrates her eleventh birthday with Starletta. Soon, however, Ellen must find another home because Julia is not rehired by the school and decides to move away. Thus continues a series of displacements for Ellen, each situation unhappier than the former.
Ellen’s grandmother, mama’s mama, is the next person to take her in, for the court has ordered that Ellen is best off with family. Mama’s mama hates Ellen’s father and blames him for exposing his fragile daughter to a life of misery. She transfers this hatred to Ellen. She sees to her physical needs but speaks cruelly to her, even blaming her granddaughter for her mother’s death.
Finally, mama’s mama puts Ellen to work in the cotton fields, into hot and backbreaking work fit only, in the eyes of mama’s mama, for the African Americans she hires. Ellen endures, however, helped along by Mavis, a field hand who befriends and helps her. Soon, Ellen’s father as well as her grandmother dies. She is then sent to another of her mother’s sisters, Aunt Nadine.
Life with Aunt Nadine seems fine at first, until it becomes clear that Nadine and her unpleasant daughter, Dora, are determined to keep Ellen in her place. The breaking point occurs when Ellen makes pictures for her aunt and cousin for Christmas, framing them herself with colored paper and proudly presenting them as gifts on Christmas Eve. Ellen overhears their reactions to the gifts and is angered and humiliated.
The next morning, while Dora opens gift after gift, Ellen is presented with just one gift, the pack of white paper she had asked for, and nothing else. Ellen is furious at their insensitivity and selfishness and retreats to her room. She invents a boyfriend who gives her the microscope she had bought earlier for herself to taunt Dora.
After Nadine accuses Ellen of ingratitude, Ellen packs her things, dresses in her best clothes, and walks to the house of a woman she has seen in church with her daughters, a foster mother, she has been told. She asks the woman to take her in and offers her the $160 she had saved while living with her father. The woman takes her in, and she also arranges to keep her legally. Ellen has at last found a home, and a new mama.
Starletta visits Ellen at her new home. Though Ellen has always loved her friend, she experiences a kind of epiphany, recognizing her own earlier racism. She decides that Starletta has a harder time in life than she has. Ellen not only has survived and endured but also has grown beyond the narrow-mindedness of her society.
Ellen’s life in her new foster home is a happy one, a life filled with “normal” childhood things, like going to school, a clean and orderly household, eating nutritious meals, helping with chores, celebrating holidays, riding her horse, and above all, basking in her new mama’s warm attention.
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