Book Review: Ellen Foster
Posted April 17, 2010on:
Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons, Algonquin Books, 1987.
Kaye Gibbons has crafted an amazing voice in this novel. The story is told by Ellen who, in spite of being only 11, refers to herself as “old Ellen.” She is the victim of neglect and abuse, but she never even hints at self-pity. Her voice is so compelling because it is unwavering in its frankness and determination.
As the story unfolds, she first talks about caring for her dying mother under a blanket of rage and demands and violence from her alcoholic father. After her mother’s death, she stays with her father until it becomes too dangerous. She stays with a caring teacher, the grandmother who blames her for her mother’s death, an impoverished African-American family, her aunt and finally a loving foster home. Through it all, we adult readers perceive a child who is victimized, tossed about, adrift and abandoned. Ellen’s voice, however, tells a different story—it is a story of a girl with plans, who takes care of her own needs and learns to be satisfied and happy with the simple things.
Her dream is for a loving family, not anything of material significance—except maybe a microscope. Her main example for the kind of love she yearns for is from Starletta, an African-American girl that she befriends in spite of Jim Crow color line obstacles. Starletta’s family takes her in at her most desperate, and Ellen still feels fearful and dirty for having been in their home. One of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is Ellen’s transformation in this regard, as she yearns to make it up to Starletta by inviting her into her new home, to share her food and her bed, without prejudice.
Ellen’s voice in this book is so compelling, and her determination wins the day. A great story, beautifully written.