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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

When Ellen Grae first appeared in 1967, it was deemed too taxing for children of Ellen Grae’s age because the moral dilemmas and conflicts with which she is faced were considered too difficult and/or inappropriate. Ellen Grae not only must decide whether to reveal a secret entrusted to her by a friend but also must deal with the adult issues of familial divorce, death, mental retardation, and poverty, balancing community values and personal values and independence in addition to the question of right and wrong.

The strength of Ellen Grae, however, is that the protagonist is shown to be capable of handling these quite difficult issues in an appropriate way because she can make decisions on her own, although she is not always comfortable with the outcome. The beauty and strength of the Cleavers’ writing is that they make readers believe that Ellen Grae is capable of moral determinations. They do so by graciously moving readers slowly to the conflict and by using a first-person narrative.

The authors situate the story in a small, lazy Florida town where everyone is known to each other, foibles and all, as is Ellen Grae and her tendency to tell outrageously comic stories. Although Ira spills his story to Ellen Grae at the beginning of the book, the novel’s first half is basically plot-free, even though the authors are skillfully heading toward a fast conflict and painful denouement. The plot moves as imperceptibly, quietly, and lazily as the overheated Florida town at Labor Day, when the conflict suddenly reemerges on a fateful treasure-hunting trip that Ellen Grae, Grover, and Ira take together to the swamp where Ira has allegedly buried his parents.

Humor also plays an important part in the first half of the book, as Ellen Grae’s sophisticated comic stories provide both background for the conflict and relief when it comes. Ellen Grae’s and Grover’s humor stem from the authors’ uncanny ear for children’s speech and exaggeration; it is the natural humor of intelligent and imaginative children. By introducing humor sporadically into the text, the Cleavers elicit identification with and empathy for their protagonist, foreshadow elements of the plot, and imply the severity of Ellen Grae’s plight by moving her humor to the background after she has become burdened with the responsibility of Ira’s secret and its consequences.

The unconventional plot sequencing, along with the use of setting description and humor to establish character, is an aesthetic wonder considering the compactness of the book. Yet when the conflict comes, all these elements combine to draw the reader into the decision-making process that Ellen Grae faces. She is unable to decide whether to reveal her friend’s secret, confused by what is morally right in her own mind and by her own sense of loss for herself as a result of her parents’ rejection. Ellen Grae’s feelings elicit strong emotional appeals to the reader to join her conflict and grow to maturity with her.

The ambiguous ending emphasizes the fact that the reader never knows for certain whether Ira’s story is true, and the issue is, in fact, a moot point. Furthermore, it does not actually matter whether the reader agrees with what Ellen Grae did. What matters is that readers, like the carefully crafted protagonist, have been forced to scrutinize their own values about right and wrong for themselves. In the end, Ellen Grae learns the meaning of personal responsibility and loyalty to her friends, that responsibility is something that one must deal with alone, that it can be lonely being a morally committed person, and that doing what feels morally right does not always bring rewards. In short, Ellen Grae has learned that life is full of uncertainties and ambiguities and that some decisions are not comforting. That the reader is allowed to share the process of making value decisions with Ellen Grae is the strength of this eloquent book.

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