Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster

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Ellen Foster Summary

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Ellen Foster (1987) is the debut novel of American author Kaye Gibbons. The novel tells the story of ten-year-old Ellen Foster and her challenging childhood. The novel is inspired by the author’s own experience growing up in a four-room farmhouse in a rural community outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Ellen is a white girl living in the rural South in the mid to late 1970s. Ellen tells her tale in the grammatically incorrect language of a young girl without much education. She is an only child growing up in a challenging environment. Her father is drunk and abusive. Ellen wishes there were a way she could remove her father from her life. She even imagines ways she might kill him. Her mother suffers from a heart condition and Ellen has to protect her mother from her abusive husband.

At the novel’s start, Ellen’s mother is in the hospital for her heart. After she returns home, Ellen’s mother continues to suffer from her husband’s domestic abuse. Ellen’s mother commits suicide by drug overdose, with her daughter lying next to her. Ellen believes her violent father to be the reason for her mother’s suicide.

Ellen dreams of living with a loving family. Instead, she lives with her alcoholic and abusive father, who cannot manage the household. She is forced to cook her meals, do the grocery shopping, and even pay the bills. Ellen stashes money to save for a better life for herself in the future.

There are some bright spots in Ellen’s childhood. She loves to read, and borrows books from the library. She has a good friend, Starletta, who comes from a poor family living in a cabin without an indoor bathroom. Starletta’s family is kind and their home is a refuge to Ellen. However, the racially prejudiced Ellen won’t eat, drink, or sleep at Starletta’s home.

Ellen is finally freed from her father’s care when her teacher discovers her bruised arm. First, Ellen goes to live with her young, hippie art teacher, Julia, and her husband, Roy. She is happy with them for the short time she is there. Ellen celebrates her eleventh birthday with Julia, Roy, and Starletta.

Ellen is forced to leave Julia and Roy when her grandmother, her mama’s mama, wins custody of her in court. Ellen’s grandmother is a wealthy old woman who owns farmland. Her grandmother thinks that Ellen takes after her no-good father. She is a cruel and bitter woman who claims that Ellen is in some ways responsible for her daughter’s death. During the summer, the grandmother forces young Ellen to work her cotton fields in the scorching sun among black workers. Mavis, who knew Ellen’s mother, is kind to Ellen while they work in the fields together.

While at her grandmother’s, Ellen is orphaned when her father dies of an aneurysm. Despite having imagined how she would kill him, Ellen sheds a single tear mourning his death. Her grandmother, who witnesses the tear, orders her to never cry again.

Despite her grandmother’s cruelty, Ellen cares for her grandmother when she gets ill. She does so in part so that no one can accuse her of being responsible for her grandmother’s death. Ellen’s grandmother dies soon after becoming ill.

The orphaned Ellen goes to live with her neglectful aunt, Nadine Nelson, and spoiled cousin, Dora. Dora is the same age as Ellen and feels that Ellen has intruded on her life. When Ellen celebrates Christmas with them, she has no money to buy them presents. Instead, she paints Nadine and Dora a picture of two cats, which she thinks that they will like. For herself, she asks for art paper as a present. Dora insults her painting, which angers Ellen. Ellen throws her present of white paper at Dora. Nadine kicks Ellen out of her home.

Ellen puts on her best dress and leaves her aunt’s house in search of somewhere to call home. With her boxed-up belongings in hand, she crosses town and knocks on the door of a local foster lady. Ellen’s luck begins to change. “New mama” welcomes Ellen with open opens and refuses Ellen’s offer of her saved-up money. Out of concern for Ellen, she offers to adopt her. Ellen has found a loving home where all her needs will be met. Her new mama cares for Ellen and the other children in her care with love and kindness.

Ellen has lost touch with her friend, Starletta. She also feels shame at how she treated her friend because of the color of her skin. She invites Starletta to sleep over at her new home and apologizes to her for her past treatment. Starletta accepts the apology with grace. Ellen also realizes that despite all the difficulties she has faced, her friend has had even more hardships.

Author Kaye Gibbons continues Ellen’s story in a sequel titled The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster.