For Further Study
When Kaye Gibbons published Ellen Foster in 1987, the novel—her first—met with an enthusiastic audience. Critics admired Gibbons's skillful creation of Ellen's narrative voice, acknowledging its accuracy in representing a child's point of view. Gibbons won two literary awards for Ellen Foster, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and a citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. While some readers criticized the events of the novel as being melodramatic, others asserted that Ellen's wisdom, resilience, and tenacity save her narrative from becoming a sentimental tearjerker. Gibbons has said that some of the events of the novel—Ellen mother's suicide and Ellen's subsequent movement from one relative's home to another—reflect her own childhood experiences. Ellen is indeed a lonely child, quietly observing the happiness of other families, yearning to belong, and making mental notes about what her perfect family should be like. Ellen Foster is ultimately a coming-of-age story, as Ellen engineers for herself a place in the secure, nurturing family she has craved and simultaneously comes to understand herself better through her friendship with Starletta, her black friend. Against the Southern backdrop of racism, Ellen moves from feeling she is superior to Starletta into a new understanding that color has nothing to do with a person's character. Ellen Foster belongs not only to the Southern tradition in American literature, with its distinctive voice and its treatment of racism, but also to that of first-person coming-of-age narratives, in which the narrator's innocence is also his or her wisdom.
When Gibbons first published Ellen Foster in 1987, journalists writing about the book—her first novel—wanted to know whether narrator Ellen's troubled childhood reflected in any way the early experiences of her creator.
Born in 1960 in Nash County, North Carolina, Gibbons, not wanting to draw attention to her own life as a means of publicizing the book, was reluctant at first to discuss her childhood with the press. Eventually though, she revealed that her mother, like Ellen's, had committed suicide when Gibbons was ten, an event which led to her family's breakup and to Gibbons's having to live in a succession of relatives' homes.
Gibbons went on to graduate from Rocky Mount High School in North Carolina, and while a college student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she began writing a poem in the voice of Starletta. Gibbons told Bob Summer in a Publishers Weekly interview that she wrote from Starletta's perspective because "I wanted to see if I could have a child use her voice to talk about life, death, art, eternity—big things from a little person." The poem about Starletta eventually evolved into Ellen Foster.
Gibbons gave up her plans for a teaching career once it was clear that Ellen Foster was a success. She won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as a citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, for Ellen Foster. She cites both Flannery O'Connor and James Weldon Johnson as important literary influences on her work.
In Hungry Mind Review, Gibbons admits that an editor's one-time prediction that she "would always write about women's burdens," has mostly come true. She writes, she says, "in part, to discover what those burdens are and how a character's load can be lessened, her pain mitigated." In Ellen Foster, Gibbons discovers that Ellen, just on the verge of young womanhood, finds comfort and relief from her burdens within herself.
Ellen Foster is told from young Ellen's point of view. The narrative shifts between memories of her abusive past and descriptions of her present life in a foster family.
The book opens with Ellen's confession that she used to think of ways to kill her daddy, but she did not kill him. He drank himself to death. She just wished him dead. She then shifts to talking about how much happier she is now that she lives with her foster family in a clean home with plenty of food.
Shifting into the past again, Ellen relates how her sickly mother came home from the hospital but could not rest because she had to tend to her drunken, abusive husband. Ellen tries to shield her mother from her father, effectively serving as parent to both of them, but she cannot save her mother, who overdoses on pills. Ellen tries to call for help, but her father threatens to kill both Ellen and her mother if Ellen leaves the house. He convinces Ellen that all her mama needs is sleep, so Ellen takes her mother back to bed and curls up beside her. Even after she feels her mother's heart stop beating, Ellen continues to lie there, wanting to hold on to her mother for a little longer.
After the death of his wife, Ellen's father stops doing anything but eating and sleeping. His brothers bring him some papers to sign, and after that they bring him an envelope with money once a month. Ellen makes sure to get to the money before her father does so that she can pay the bills and buy food. Ellen's only friends are Starletta and her parents, a black family that lives nearby. Ellen struggles with her prejudices as she likes Starletta and her family, but secretly feels superior to them and fears that if she drinks from the same cup or eats their food she will catch something from them. Ellen spends Christmas day with them, but although she is hungry she will not eat dinner with them. She returns home, relieved not to find her drunken father there and spends Christmas night alone. This lonely scene is juxtaposed with a scene from Ellen's present life in the foster home, where all of the children are building a terrarium together.
On New Year's eve Ellen's father and other drunken men show up at Ellen's house. Ellen hides when the drunken men make lewd comments about her. When she comes out of hiding and tries to sneak out of the house her father grabs her, calling her by her mother's name. She runs to Starletta's home and asks to spend the night, offering to pay a dollar, which Starletta's mother refuses.
Ellen then decides to leave her father's house. Packing all of her things in a box, she calls her aunt Betsy and asks if she can stay with her. Betsy picks her up and they spend a pleasant weekend together but when Betsy discovers Ellen wants to stay permanently, she refuses to take Ellen in and drives her back home. The narration then abruptly shifts from this scene of rejection to Ellen's description of how her "new mama" shops for all of her foster children, always providing them with plenty of food and a safe place to stay.
Back at her father's house Ellen decides she will have to lock herself up to avoid her father's advances. Sometimes, however, he gets to her anyway and she has to struggle to escape. When Ellen's teachers notice a bruise on her arm they decide she cannot stay with her father anymore.
Julia and Roy
Ellen moves in with her art teacher, Julia, and Julia's husband, Roy. Roy and Julia are former hippies who moved to the rural south to find themselves. With them, Ellen is able to relax and enjoy herself. They garden, cook, paint, and draw together, and Ellen has her first birthday party, with Starletta as her guest. Ellen's life seems to be improving, until her father shows up one day at her school. Drunk as usual, he drops his pants and stands in the schoolyard shouting for her. Shortly after, the court takes Ellen from Julia and Roy and awards custody to her grandmother, a bitter, angry woman who blames Ellen and her daddy for the death of Ellen's mama.
Again the novel shifts, from the loneliness of Ellen's past to the comfort and companionship of her present. Ellen describes the good food at her foster home and how enjoyable it is to be with her new mama and all the other children.
The period spent at her grandmother's house is a bad time for Ellen, who quickly learns that her grandmother hates her and blames her for the death of her mama. Ellen is put to work in the fields. The work is physically demanding, but through it Ellen meets Mavis, a black farmhand who grew up on the farm with Ellen's mama. Talking to Mavis, Ellen learns a lot about her own family, and watching Mavis and the other fieldhands, she learns a lot about what a family should be.
Ellen's father drinks himself to death and then her grandmother gets sick. Ellen must now leave working in the fields to take care of her. She believes Ellen helped her father to kill her mama, and so she tells Ellen "you best take better care of me than you did of your mama."
Ellen figures out that after her mother's death her grandmother took over the farm deeds belonging to Ellen's father and his brothers. It was she who provided the monthly envelope full of money, and then slowly killing off Ellen's daddy by giving him less money each month, knowing he would waste it all on alcohol.
Ellen cares for her grandmother to the best of her ability and when she dies Ellen even tries to revive her. But when she cannot resuscitate her she tells her "… the score is two to one now. I might have my mama's soul to worry over but you've got my daddy's and your own. The score is two to one but I win."
The Foster Home
After her grandmother's death, aunt Nadine and cousin Dora Ellen reluctantly taken Ellen in. Attending church with them one Sunday, Ellen sees her new mama for the first time. She asks Dora who the woman with all the girls is and Dora tells her they are the foster family. Ellen naively assumes that this means their last name is "Foster." Ellen knows from the woman's dignity and compassion that this is the mother for her, so when Nadine throws her out on Christmas day, Ellen walks to the foster home. She asks if she can stay there, offering all the money she has saved, one hundred and sixty six dollars, as payment. Ellen's new mama refuses the money, but gladly takes in the love-starved child.
In her new foster home Ellen is no longer forced to care for others, and is instead cared for. She is happy, but begins to miss Starletta, who is growing up and whom she fears will not always want to be friends with her. Growing up, Ellen leaves behind old prejudices. She begins to make plans to bring Starletta to spend the night at the foster home.
The book ends with Starletta's visit to Ellen's new home. Ellen confesses her old prejudices to Starletta, and in apologizing for them reveals how much she has learned and matured over the course of the novel.
One of Ellen's mother's two sisters, Aunt Betsy is willing to have Ellen come stay with her for a weekend, but ultimately won't help her or take responsibility for her.
Ellen's mother's sister, Aunt Nadine, is a self-important, selfish phony who treats Ellen as if she is beneath her. Aunt Nadine avoids the truth, refusing, for instance, to admit that her daughter Dora still wets her pants at the age of ten. Nadine takes charge at Ellen's mama's funeral, but Ellen is disgusted by her pretension and cheerfulness as she chats with the undertaker. According to Ellen, when Aunt Nadine "is not redecorating or shopping with Dora she demonstrates food slicers in your home."
When Ellen goes to live with Dora and Aunt Nadine after her grandmother dies, she sees that she is not welcome and decides to keep to herself as much as possible. For Christmas, after Ellen gives Nadine and Dora a painting she worked hard to make, they ridicule the painting behind her back. Ellen's Christmas gift from them is a pack of white art paper, a meager gift next to Dora's mountain of toys and clothes. Crushed and angered by their selfishness, Ellen tells Nadine she is crazy and that she and Dora are "the same as the people who would not believe the world was round." Aunt Nadine thereupon tells Ellen to get out, that she never wanted Ellen to come, and that she and Dora just want to live in their house alone. This is Ellen's impetus to make her move to find herself a new family.
Ellen's first cousin, the daughter of Ellen's mother's sister, Aunt Nadine. Dora is ten years old and still wets her pants, according to Ellen. A spoiled only child, Dora is taught by her mother to look down on Ellen and not to see the truth.
See Aunt Nadine
Abusive toward his wife and daughter, Ellen's daddy is a self-destructive and selfish alcoholic. For Ellen, he is "a monster," "a mistake for a person." His cruelty to Ellen's mother is the reason for her suicide.
- Ellen Foster was adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie starring Glynnis O'Connor, Jena Malone, Julie Harris, and Debra Monk, 1997.
- Kaye Gibbons reads Ellen Foster on an audio cassette (three hours), published by Simon & Schuster (Audio), 1996.
Following her death, he neglects Ellen, staying away from home for long periods and leaving Ellen alone in the house. When he is home, he often brings groups of friends home with him to drink. They take over the house and frighten Ellen, who hides when they are around. When her father begins to make sexual advances toward her, Ellen runs away. In the book's opening sentence, Ellen
confesses "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." She hates him for the way he treats her mama and her. Ellen's mama's family also hate Ellen's daddy because they feel their daughter and sister married far beneath her and they condemn his cruel treatment of her.
Ellen's mama dies in the second chapter of the novel, and it is her loss that sets in motion the disintegration of Ellen's world. A gentle woman who married beneath her in the eyes of her well-to-do family, Ellen's mama endures the abuses of her husband; returning home from the hospital after heart surgery, she drags herself around the kitchen, waiting on him as he yells insults at her. Unable to stand her life with him any longer, Ellen's mama swallows nearly the whole bottle of her heart pills and dies, lying in her bed with Ellen beside her.
Ellen's mama's mama
Mean, angry, and vengeful, Ellen's mama's mama—her maternal grandmother—hates Ellen's daddy for his treatment of Ellen's mama—her daughter—and extends her hostile feelings to Ellen. A wealthy woman, she had not wanted her daughter to marry Ellen's daddy, whom she felt was beneath them socially, and now that he has caused her daughter's death, Ellen's grandmother is enraged.
When Ellen's daddy makes sexual advances toward Ellen, she runs away, and Ellen's case ultimately ends up in court, where a judge sends her to live with her grandmother because he believes families should stay together. Ellen thinks, "He had us all mixed up with a different group of folks," but she goes to live with her grandmother, who sends her every day to work in her cotton fields to get rid of her and to get revenge on Ellen's daddy. Her grandmother accuses Ellen of helping her daddy kill her mama and of being "in cahoots" with him. When her grandmother becomes desperately ill with the flu, Ellen nurses her and is by her side when she dies.
Ellen's new mama
Ellen notices the woman who is to become her "new mama" in church and it becomes clear to Ellen that this woman has dignity and character and "eyes that would flush all the ugly out of your system." After her own mama dies, Ellen thinks constantly about how to get a new, better family, and once she starts noticing the woman in church, she is determined to make this woman her new mama.
Once she does take Ellen into her home, which turns out to be a foster home for children, Ellen's new mama is all that Ellen could have hoped for in a mama: she is warm, nurturing, and supportive, and yet her home has structure and discipline. She is "always willing to help if it matters to you"; she not only allows Ellen to invite Starletta to sleep over, she also embroiders towels with Starletta's initials at Ellen's request, so that Starletta will feel especially welcome. In her new family—"the Foster family"—Ellen is made to feel she belongs.
Ellen, the eleven-year-old narrator of the novel, renames herself "Ellen Foster" when she decides she wants to be part of the "Foster family"—or foster family—she sees at church. Ellen is wise beyond her years because of the cruel treatment she has received from her "real" family, and she dreams and plans constantly about how to get herself a new family. She is a determined, resilient, resourceful girl who knows what she needs and how to fulfill those needs. She buys her own Christmas gifts and mix-and-match clothes, and she cooks frozen TV dinners for herself when her daddy isn't around.
But while Ellen is self-reliant, she also knows when she needs help, and she is driven to find the right place for herself in the world. She studies other families—Starletta's family, the "Foster family," Mavis's family—and makes mental notes of what she does and does not want in a family. As she watches Mavis and her family, Ellen declares she "would bust open if [she] did not get one of them for [her] own self soon."
She is troubled by her conflicting feelings about Starletta. At first she believes she is superior to Starletta because she is white and Starletta is black, but she comes to realize that the ones to watch out for are "the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch." Skin color does not determine what is inside that skin. White people can be low and evil.
After Ellen moves into her new mama's home, and finds her safe haven at last, she has the capacity to think about her relationship with Starletta in larger terms. She does the unthinkable in this racist Southern town and invites her black friend to sleep over at her new house. As they wait for supper in Ellen's room, Ellen recognizes that "I came a long way to get here but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther… And all this time I thought I had the hard est row to hoe."
Julia, the art teacher at Ellen's school, kindly takes Ellen home to live with her after she notices a bruise on Ellen's arm and Ellen admits her father has been hurting her. Julia is a goodhearted free spirit who loves to garden and be silly. Ellen says "she used to be a flower child [in the sixties] but now she is low key so she can hold a job." She treats Ellen like she is special.
Mavis is a large, strong, African American woman who comes to Ellen's rescue. She helps her do the hard work in the cotton fields when Ellen's grandmother puts her to work after she comes to live with her. Ellen observes that Mavis's family is happy, and this prompts her to make "a list of all that a family should have."
"The man [who] comes and asks me questions about the past," according to Ellen. He meets with her at school but she hates talking to him. She notices that he twists what she says to suit himself.
Julia's husband, Roy, amazes Ellen with his ability to cook, wash dishes, and clean. He is an enthusiastic organic gardener. Like Julia, Roy is kind to Ellen.
She is Ellen's only friend. Younger than Ellen, she is an African American girl whose intact, happy family is a temporary refuge for Ellen when life with her father becomes unbearable. Starletta "hates to talk," according to Ellen, and she does not speak throughout the novel; rather, Ellen projects her emotions and longing for security onto her silent friend. Ellen loves Starletta and says of her "She is not as smart as I am but she is more fun." But Ellen is also confused about her feelings for Starletta because Starletta is "colored" and Ellen has been conditioned by her white Southern world to feel superior to her.
Like Starletta's mama, her daddy is hospitable and warm toward Ellen. He is a family man, and Ellen notices that "he is the only colored man that does not buy liquor from my daddy."
Starletta's mama is kind to Ellen. Understanding that Ellen's life alone with her father is hard, she welcomes Ellen into her home. She and Starletta's father provide a warm and loving home for Starletta, a fact that does not escape Ellen's notice.
The unmarried "official mama" of baby Roger, Stella is also in the seventh grade. Stella and Roger live together at Ellen's new mama's house.
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.
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.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of race relations in the American South during the second half of the 20th century. How did integration change the lives of blacks and whites in the South, and how have both races felt about these changes?
- Investigate the effects of foster care on American children who live in foster homes. Explore autobiographical narratives as well as research studies about life in foster care. How might living in foster homes impact—positively or negatively—a child's ability to build relationships with others?
- Has the incidence of child abuse increased in the last 25 years of the 20th century, or has increased reporting of child abuse made it seem as though child abuse is on the rise in American society? What social conditions might make child abuse a more likely occurrence?
- The definition of "family" and "family values" changed dramatically in the 20th century. Research views of the family from each twenty-five-year period of the 1900s: what was the "typical" American family like from 1900-1925? from 1926-1950? from 1951-1975? from 1976-the present? Who has been responsible for defining what is "typical" during each of these periods? How realistic is the "typical" family from each period?
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, "when I thought about you I always felt glad for myself."
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.
Point of View
The first-person narration in Ellen Foster makes the book distinctive. Ellen's unique perspective—that of a child lost amidst the swirling anger and cruelty in her family—is like the eye of a storm. Though only eleven, wise Ellen quietly perceives that her dysfunctional family "never was the kind that would fit into a handy category." Through her eyes we see that the adults around her are less capable of nurturing her than she is herself. She is sensible enough to know she needs a family and a "new mama" to take care of her.
Ellen's wisdom about the world contrasts with her often-incorrect vocabulary and grammar, emphasizing the concept that insight and authority can come from unlikely places. While a third-person rendering of Ellen's wretched circumstances might become maudlin, Ellen's good humor and resourcefulness are revealed in her dogged yet spirited first-person narration.
Ellen Foster takes place in the post-Civil Rights South, yet the racist values that Ellen struggles with throughout the novel reflect her upbringing in a South still divided by color. The racism of Ellen's world permeates the novel. Ellen's mother's funeral procession has "to drive through colored town to get to church," and Ellen's maternal grandmother calls her white father "a nigger and trash"—the worst insults she can think of—because she believes he is responsible for Ellen's mother's death.
Ellen is self-conscious about her friendship with Starletta, knowing that "every rule in the book says" she should not be friends with a "colored" girl, yet Ellen herself feels superior to Starletta because she is white and Starletta is black.
The setting is crucial to Ellen's story because the racist values of her larger world reflect the way her family treats her like a second-class citizen. As Ellen moves away from her harsh, chaotic family and toward the secure life she wants so badly, her own racism begins to fall away. She no longer needs to look down on someone in order to feel better about herself. Her change of circumstances allows her to see Starletta as a real person.
Throughout the novel, Ellen's narrative moves back and forth in time, from her present life to the events of the past year that lead up to it.
The present consists of Ellen's new life with her "new mama" in "the Foster family." This time period is marked by passages describing how orderly, nurturing, and secure life is in this new family.
Ellen's descriptions of her recent past begin with her mother's final illness and suicide, then moves through the downward spiral her life follows after this devastating event.
Gibbons's use of flashbacks to reveal the most painful times in Ellen's life allows Ellen as narrator to shape her past experiences around her happy ending. From her secure vantage point in the foster family, Ellen looks back at the turmoil and pain she lived through in her own family and feels "glad to rest" in her new home, as if she "would not ever move from there."
"Mamas" and food images permeate Ellen Foster, both reflecting Ellen's deep need for nurturing and love. Ellen's "real mama" commits suicide in chapter two, and the loss reverberates throughout the novel. Following her mother's death, Ellen notices "mamas" everywhere, refering to many of the women she knows not by name but in terms of their status as mothers. Her grandmother is "mama's mama," Aunt Nadine is "Dora's mama," Starletta's mother is known only as "Starletta's mama," young Stella is baby Roger's "official mama," and Ellen's foster mother is her "new mama."
"Mama," often a baby's first word, illustrates Ellen's very basic, almost infantile, need for a mother. After her mother swallows most of and too much of her heart medicine, Ellen snuggles close to her mother's side in bed and says, "I will crawl in and make room for myself. My heart can be the one that beats." This moment suggests Ellen's desire both to return to the safety of the womb and to reverse roles with her mother so that she provides life for her.
A similar hunger for nurturing and sustenance is reflected by Ellen's preoccupation with food throughout the novel. Following her mother's funeral, she goes home alone and eats "right out of the bowls" the food the ladies from church have sent. When her father neglects her and forgets to buy food for her, Ellen buys herself frozen dinners, "the plate froze with the food already on it. A meat, two vegetables, and a dab of dessert." Yet, in spite of her constant hunger, Ellen will not eat the food Starletta's mama makes because it is "colored" food. When she stays with her mama's mama, there is plenty to eat but no sense of togetherness at meal-time. "We both picked at our little individual chickens or turkeys and did not talk." Even when she is living at her new mama's house, where making and eating food are central activities, Ellen says "I stay starved though" and predicts "I know that in ten years from now I will be a member of the food industry." Her hunger and preoccupation with food, as well as her fixation on mother figures, reflect her twin needs: to be taken care of and to belong.
Ellen Foster is a bildungsroman, or comingof-age novel, tracing Ellen's movement from isolation into community, from abandonment into nurturance and her own role in making this transformation occur.
Ellen learns from her experiences. Her family teaches her what she does not want in a family, and she goes on to find one in which she can succeed. Her larger world, permeated by racism, tells her she should feel superior to black people simply because she is white, but eventually she sees the error and injustice of that view. Ellen grows into a selfempowered, empathetic girl by virtue of her ability to think for herself and her will to effect change in her world.
Conservatism in the 1980s
The existence of Julia—the former 1960s flower child turned respectable art teacher—helps to locate the action in Ellen Foster within the late 1970s or early 1980s. Gibbons began working on her ideas for the novel around 1980 while in college and published the novel in 1987.
A conservative political agenda centered on dismantling liberal programs and beliefs that held sway during the 1930s and the 1960s serve as the backdrop while Gibbons wrote her novel in the 1980s.
The civil rights and feminist movements, having accomplished much in the 1960s, now faced uphill battles against a conservative government of the 1980s. Efforts to help the homeless, fund AIDS research, and prevent drug abuse and urban violence met with resistance. The poor grew poorer while the rich grew richer. Helping those in need was viewed as encouraging the needy not to help themselves.
The contrast between Julia's flower child past and her present "low key so she can hold a job" demeanor speaks to the conservative political and social climate of the 1980s. Julia's free spirit and social-mindedness are portrayed as ultimately doing her no good in the present world of the novel. Recalling the 1960s, Julia describes herself as wanting to "change the world," but here in the 1980s her efforts to change Ellen's world fail, crushed by a court system which senselessly sends Ellen to live with a cruel, manipulative grandmother.
Conservatives in the 1980s leaned heavily on "traditional family values," values culled from a nostalgic view of family life as it supposedly was in the past. The judge who places Ellen with her grandmother "talks about family [as] society's cornerstone," but Ellen protests in her mind that hers "was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been crumbly old brick."
Ellen and Julia both know that real families are not based on the myth of a particular set of values. The outcome of Ellen's quest for a "normal" family is ironically a group of people who are not blood-related but can still call themselves a family, thus contesting the conservative image of the "traditional" family.
Reported incidents of child abuse in the United States rose dramatically during the 1980s. The number of cases reported in 1988 was four times the number reported in 1980, and in 1989 the number of reported cases stood at 2.4 million. Although these figures clearly show the prevalence of child abuse, this apparent increase may not be quite what it seems. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, passed in 1974, requires more diligent reporting of child abuse than had previously been required. The increase in numbers may be indicative of the number of cases that professionals would not have reported previous to the passage of the 1974 act.
In the 1980s, Social Service agencies, already overburdened with the increase of child abuse cases, found they were up against a conservative social climate inhospitable to efforts to address child abuse as a social problem. Ellen Foster's abuse by her father occurs against the background of this social conservatism that includes a repulsion for families who didn't adhere to so-called "traditional family values."
Consequently, Ellen falls through the cracks of the system. Her father's neglect and abuse do not come to light until Ellen's teacher notices a bruise on her arm and for awhile she goes to live with Julia, her art teacher. When the judge sends her to live with her grandmother, Ellen is verbally and
psychologically abused by other members of her extended family. The only sign of intervention comes from an ineffectual psychologist who she despises. He meets with her at school to discuss her "high degree of trauma."
Ellen finally achieves security not because anyone has helped her, but because she has helped herself. The irony of an abused child having to help herself find a home speaks of the harsh social climate of the 1980s, in which society's unfortunates received little help from those in power.
The gains made in race relations in the United States during the 1960s experienced a backlash in the 1980s. African Americans lost ground as the gap in income between blacks and whites grew. Racial tension accompanied the widening economic breach between the races, creating fear and anger on both sides.
When Ellen talks about "the law" that dictates separation between her and her black friend, Starletta, she could be referring to the Jim Crow laws of the South abolished during the 1960s civil rights movement. The reference could also be about the separation of the races that accompanied pre-Civil War slavery. "I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it."
In spite of her affection for Starletta, Ellen is open about her feelings of superiority over Starletta and her fear of catching "colored germs." Her matter-of-fact attitude towards her own racism—repented as the novel nears its end—reflects a larger social trend in the 1980s toward open hostility of whites toward blacks.
Critics responded favorably to Ellen Foster when it first appeared in 1987, praising Gibbons' skill crafting Ellen's narrative voice and the sensitivity she portrayed in Ellen's struggle with racism. Some critics deliberated the believability of Ellen's position as narrator, questioning whether she is too wise for her years. A critic for Kirkus Reviews suggested that Ellen's instinctual wisdom belies her eleven years yet in her "innocence" and "tough stoicism" the voice of this young narrator "rings true" A Publishers Weekly reviewer spoke in the same vein, calling Ellen's narrative voice a correct portrayal of the world from a child's view but one that was sometimes "too knowing."
Other critics focused on Gibbons's treatment of her subject matter, commenting that the terrible events of Ellen's young life could be read as melo-dramatic if not for Ellen's narrative voice. The Publishers Weekly reviewer, unsure about Ellen's capacity for saving the narrative from insipidness, claimed the book's plot is similar to a "Victorian tearjerker." But Brad Hooper, reviewing the work for Booklist, wrote that it was "never weepy or grim, despite the subject matter." Deanna D'Errico, in Belles Lettres, referred to "the artful, humorous style with which Ellen tells her tale," commenting specifically on Gibbons's use of "interweaving past and present in alternate chapters."
In agreement with both Hooper and D'Errico, Alice Hoffman wrote in The New York Times Book Review that "What might have been grim, melo-dramatic material in the hands of a less talented author is instead filled with lively humor … compassion and intimacy." Hoffman went on to point out that the novel "focuses on Ellen's strengths rather than her victimization, presenting a memorable heroine who rescues herself."
Other critics, such as Pearl K. Bell, credited Gibbons for not falling into familiar traps by giving narrative authority to a child. Bell wrote in The New Republic, "Gibbons never allows us to feel the slightest doubt that [Ellen] is only 11. Nor does she ever lapse into the condescending cuteness that afflicts so many stories about precocious children." Linda Taylor asserted in The Sunday Times of London that Ellen is believable "because although she has a dark tale to tell, she will not engineer sympathy for her effects."
Some early critics found the theme of racism in Ellen Foster particularly compelling and skillfully handled by Gibbons. Publishers Weekly noted that the author artfully brings a reflective Ellen, given her own set of troubles, to know the injustice of discrimination by color. Again, in The New Republic, reviewer Pearl K. Bell claimed that "Gibbons, unlike so many writers of the New South, doesn't evade the racism of Southern life, which she subtly reveals through the tenacious child's mind." In addition to racism, Linda Taylor, critic for The Sunday Times saw Gibbons presenting a number of difficult social issues "through revelation rather than moral axe-grinding."
Ellen Foster suggests itself as part of the American literary tradition to some critics. The reviewer in Kirkus Reviews saw in Ellen's humor, intelligence, and resourcefulness, a likeness to Huck Finn and in the abusive, neglectful, alcoholic behavior of Ellen's father, a strong resemblance to "Huck's Pap." Veronica Makowsky, in Southern Quarterly, took the comparison further, contending that "although [Ellen's] gutsy, vernacular voice recalls Huck Finn, she does not light out for the territories in an attempt to maintain … autonomy." Rather, Makowsky suggested, Ellen's self-reliance is demonstrated in her new mama's home by her "act of faith in others … that allows [her] to contribute to, as well as receive from, the female tradition of community and nurturance." The novel, according to Makowsky, is "Gibbons's attempt to rewrite the saga of the American hero by changing 'him' to 'her' and to rewrite the southern female bildungsroman by changing its privileged, sheltered, upper-class heroine to a poor, abused outcast."
Donna Woodford is a doctoral candidate at Washington University and has written for a wide variety of academic journals and educational publishers. In the following essay she discussesthe narrator's search for a mother figure in Ellen Foster.
Noting the many similarities between Kaye Gibbons's childhood and that of Ellen Foster, critics often focus on the autobiographical nature of Gibbons's first novel. In a 1993 interview with Publishers Weekly, Gibbons admits that Ellen Foster is "emotionally autobiographical," but she spent many years denying the parallels between the book and her own life, afraid that a focus on her own unhappy childhood would detract from the novel. But even when she was denying the autobiographical nature of Ellen Foster, Gibbons always credited her mother with having influenced her decision to become a writer. In "My mother, literature, and a life split neatly into two halves," she notes that the "writing urge" began with her mother, even though her mother never read to her or specifically encouraged her to write.
Her name was Shine, which is exactly what she did through all the heat and poverty and the sad certainty that life would not be any other way. Her strength was a fine thing to see, to remember. If I had not known that strength, that pure perseverance, I could not have become a writer. I would have chosen something that takes far less courage.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Ellen Foster, which is dedicated to Gibbons's mother, is largely about a young girl's quest to find a mother figure and to learn how to nurture herself and others. Ellen's story is, in fact, a coming of age story, but one in which the protagonist must achieve the childhood of which she has been deprived before she can begin to truly mature.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883) novel by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). The sensible and resourceful Huck narrates this story, in which he, a poor near-orphan, becomes the moral center when everyone around him seems to be hypocritical or corrupt. Against what he knows is the law, Huck befriends Jim, an escaped black slave, and Huck struggles with his conscience as he helps Jim make his way to freedom.
- William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) follows the difficult Anse Bundren and his children as they travel through Mississippi, bringing their dead wife and mother, Addie, to her birthplace for burial. The disjointed narrative is told through the interior monologues of fifteen different characters, among them the Bundren children.
- Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons (1995) is narrated by Hattie, who looks back from adulthood at how her mother's mental illness affected their family when Hattie was a girl. Like Ellen Foster, Hattie at 12 wants to be normal and to belong, and is wise beyond her years.
- Dorothy E. Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) is the first-person story of Bone, a young girl born out of wedlock into a poor South Carolina family who is sexually abused by her stepfather. Bone's voice captures the sensitive perceptions of a girl who is coming of age.
- Lost in the System (1996) by Charlotte Lopez with Susan Dworkin is the true story of Lopez's experiences as a foster child moved from one foster home to another, hoping to find love and security. Lopez emerged successfully from her difficult beginnings and went on to win the 1993 Miss Teen USA title.
Ellen's recurring memory of working with her mother in the garden suggests the type of nurture for which she is searching. Describing her mother's tender care of the garden and of her, Ellen says.
She nursed all the plants and put even the weeds she pulled up in little piles along the rows. My job was to pick the piles up and dispose of them. I was small my own self and did not have the sense to tell between weeds and plants.
I just worked in the trail my mama left.
This remembered moment is one of the few times, prior to the foster home, that Ellen is allowed to behave as a child. Being small, she is not expected to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Rather she is given her own, age-appropriate job, and it is her mother who nurses the plants and leaves a trail in which her young daughter can work. But her mother's illness and her father's abuse soon rob Ellen of her nurturing mother figure. Her mother becomes unable to care either for Ellen or for herself, and Ellen is expected to serve as a parent for both her mother and father. Watching the way her father treats her invalid mother, Ellen describes him as "more like a big mean baby than a grown man," and when he is drunk she says, "you got to be firm when he is like this."
In this strange reversal of roles, the ten-year-old Ellen becomes the "firm" disciplinarian for her "mean baby" of a father. With her mother, Ellen is gentle and loving, but the roles of mother and daughter are still disturbingly reversed. Ellen helps her mother to undress and get into bed, just as a mother would do with a young child: "We peel her dress off over the head and slip on something loose to sleep in." Most disturbing of all, however, is Ellen's role as her mother's protector.
I try not to leave her by herself with him. Not even when they are both asleep in the bed. My baby crib is still up in their bedroom so when I hear them at night I throw a fit and will not stop until I can sleep in the baby bed. He will think twice when I am around.
By climbing into her crib in order to protect her mother, Ellen simultaneously regresses to infancy and becomes a parent and protector. The fact that the screaming child in a crib is the only one who will make her father "think twice" is symbolic of the disturbingly reversed parent-child roles in their family.
The death of Ellen's mother only makes matters worse for Ellen since her father expects her to take her mother's place. Ellen takes control of paying the bills and preparing the food, but her father also expects her to take her mother's place sexually. He literally mistakes her for her mother, calling her by her mother's name: "he does not listen to me but touches his hands harder on me. That is not me. Oh no that was her name. Do not oh you do not say her name to me." Though this scene is shocking, it is only the most extreme example of the many ways in which the young Ellen is expected to take on the role of an adult woman long before she is ready to do so.
Neither does Ellen's extended family offer her the nurturing shelter which she needs. Her aunts are unwilling to care for her, and her grandmother not only fails to provide Ellen with the love and nurturing that she needs, but repeats the mistakes of Ellen's parents by expecting Ellen to take on the responsibilities of an adult.
Just as Ellen's father expected Ellen to take on her mother's role, Ellen's grandmother sees Ellen's father in her and transfers all her hate and resentment of him to his daughter. When she looks at Ellen she sees not her granddaughter, a young girl and the child of her daughter, but the accomplice of the man who took her daughter from her. Playing on the child's own guilt over her mother's death, she blames her for being "in cahoots" with her father and accuses her of having helped him to murder her mother. She refuses to see that Ellen was only a child and incapable of caring for her mother or standing up to her violent father.
Furthermore, Ellen's grandmother again places Ellen in the position of having to parent an adult: "And through all the churning and spinning I saw her face. A big clown smile looking down at me while she said to me you best take better care of me than you did of your mama." Once again, the adults in Ellen's life are reduced to absurd, childlike figures. Her grandmother is the "big clown" who saddles Ellen with the adult responsibility of caring for a dying woman.
Julia and Roy offer Ellen a brief respite from her adult responsibilities. While living with them she is allowed to enjoy childhood pleasures and does not have to care for anyone else. But though the three of them could "pass for a family on the street," Julia and Roy cannot provide Ellen with the stability and long term nurture that she needs. They are unable to protect her from the violence of her father or the anger of her grandmother, and when the judge takes Ellen from them they are as helpless as she is.
All the arrangements are made they said so why bring me in here and do this in front of everybody like Julia who wants to scream she says. What do you do when the judge talks about the family society's cornerstone but you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been crumbly old brick? I was in my seat frustrated like when my teacher makes a mistake on the chalkboard and it will not do any good to tell her because so quick she can erase it all and on to the next problem.
Once again Ellen feels betrayed by adults who do not take adult responsibility. Teachers can erase their mistakes, and a judge can decide a child's fate even when he has her family "all mixed up with a different group of folks." In the face of such bureaucracy Julia can do nothing but "scream," and then relinquish Ellen and send her a letter "when you least expect it." Though well meaning and caring, Julia and Roy are not the stable, nurturing parents that Ellen seeks.
Throughout Ellen's troubled childhood, the two most positive examples of families in her life are Starletta's and Mavis's families. Starletta's parents are the first ones to offer Ellen shelter from her abusive father, and they are the ones who give her a Christmas present and offer to feed her on Christmas day. And just as Ellen's new mama will later refuse Ellen's money, Starletta's mother takes Ellen in when she needs protection and tells her to "put [her] money up that they do not take money from children." They are the first people to recognize that Ellen is only a child and still needs to be protected and nurtured. Mavis's family provides a similar example of a loving home. By watching Mavis's family Ellen begins to learn what a family should be.
Of course there is the mama and the daddy but if one has to be missing then it is OK if the one left can count for two But not just anybody can count for more than his or her self.
While I watched Mavis and her family I thought I would bust open if I did not get one of them for my own self soon…. I only wanted one white and with a little more money.
Ellen's inability to recognize that the nurturing qualities of these families are not diminished by the color of their skin merely demonstrates that although she has been forced to assume many adult responsibilities, she is not yet mature enough to make adult judgments. She will later realize that it was Starletta's family that offered her shelter when her own father threatened her.
I wonder to myself am I the same girl who would not drink after Starletta two years ago or eat a colored biscuit when I was starved?
It is the same girl but I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you need to worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand, but it is a knife.
But that realization will come only after she has found a parent who will nurture her as a child and allow her to mature at a natural pace.
She finds that parent in her "new mama." In the foster home Ellen finally has someone to care for her and love her. Describing life in the foster home Ellen says, "Nobody has died or blamed me for anything worse than overwatering the terrarium. But you can always stick some more ferns in the dirt. My new mama said it was not the end of the world." Ellen's only responsibilities here are age-appropriate, as they were in the garden with her mother. Once again she has a mother in whose path she can work.
Once Ellen reaches this safe, nurturing home, she is able to mature and begins to care for others. She puts aside her prejudices and reaches out to Starletta now that she realizes that her own difficult childhood has not been "the hardest row to hoe." In this coming of age story, Ellen must return to a safe and sheltered childhood in which she is nurtured by a mother before she can progress to the adult responsibilities of caring for others.
Source: Donna Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor at Adrian College and has written widely for academic journals and educational publishers. In the following essay, she applies reader-response theory to Ellen Foster in order to explore how Ellen's reading of her life parallels a reading of Ellen Foster.
Ellen Foster is Kaye Gibbon's first novel. Published in 1987, the novel has been well received by critics and readers alike. Set in a rural Southern community, it is the story of an eleven-year-old child who endures grief and abuse before settling herself in a loving foster family.
The novel can be read as a coming-of-age story, a genre in which the main character passes from a child-like understanding of the world to an adult maturity. Books such as Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye represent this genre and are two novels to which Ellen Foster has been compared.
Some critics have viewed Ellen Foster as a story of Ellen's search for atonement. These reviewers argue that Ellen tries to redeem herself from the guilt she feels over her mother's death. In addition, these critics suggest that it is Ellen's quest for atonement that leads her to invite Starletta to her new home at the end of the novel. Ellen, they say, is attempting to atone for her earlier, racially biased attitudes that may have hurt Starletta and her family.
Finally, some critics read Ellen Foster as a study of free will and destiny. From the opening inscription from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" through Ellen's decision to find a home for herself, Gibbons addresses the question of personal responsibility. Although Ellen apparently believes that she is in charge of her own destiny, the question of control seems to remain ambiguous for the author.
That it is possible for Ellen Foster to be read in so many different ways illustrates the "openness" of the text. An open text is one which encourages readers to actively interpret rather than simply accept the text passively as something with a single meaning, complete and apart from the reader's action. Such an idea is at the heart of a literary practice known as "reader-response criticism."
Reader-response theorists argue that a text has meaning only when it is read. That is, a reader and a text work together to establish meaning. They believe that the most interesting texts are those with "gaps" that the reader must fill in. Further, literary critic Stanley Fish argues in his 1972 book, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, that texts themselves are "self-consuming artifacts." Because reading is an event that takes place in time, each reading produces a unique meaning, informed by the reader's background and experience. Second readings of the same text by the same reader produce different meanings. Thus, as a reader works with a text to produce meaning, this meaning "consumes" itself nearly in the moment of its own creation. In some ways, this is parallel to the production of a play. The same group of actors performing the same script night after night will never produce two identical performances. Likewise, as we read, our understanding of earlier passages changes as we read later passages.
How might we apply these ideas to Ellen Foster? There are a number of strategies that illuminate the novel as not only a book in which reading takes place, but also a book about the act of reading itself. Kaye Gibbons' story is a text filled with gaps, one that requires active participation on the part of the reader. She creates gaps through the use of a limited point of view, shifts in the time sequence, and the lack of punctuation in the dialogue.
Ellen is the narrator of her own story. Consequently, everything we learn about the story is filtered through Ellen's eyes. This limited point of view hides the "big picture" from us. Rather, we are forced to piece the story together, bit by bit. Gibbons, however, offers us additional clues by allowing Ellen to report on the reactions of others, reactions that are interpreted one way by Ellen and another way by readers. Thus, we know more about the situation than Ellen does. For example, when Ellen's mama's mama dies, Ellen wants her to look nice when people arrive. She does this to atone for her own lack of response to her mother's death:
Anybody with decency would honor the dead and fix them up in their own bed. Especially after my experience.
You learn by your mistakes.
But I had this one fixed pretty as a picture. I did not want a soul to say I had not done my part even down to the decorations.
I found her Sunday hat she never wore and tilted it on her head the way a live woman might pop a hat on to ride to town in. Then the best part I will always be proud of was the nice frame I made all around her body. I put all the artificial flowers I could find from all those show jars around her end to end so she looked set off like a picture.
While we are within Ellen's limited point of view, this makes perfect sense. We are reading the scene in the same way she reads it. However, we shift out of this perspective when Ellen tells us, "The colored boys that loaded her up got a big kick out of my project but Nadine said I was sick to do such a thing." Suddenly, we realize how odd this little girl must appear to others. Likewise, when Ellen tells us that her new mama sits and holds Ellen's hands until her breathing slows and she stops shaking, we know that Ellen is far more traumatized than her narration leads us to believe. These moments allow us to read Ellen as other characters read her.
Gibbons also opens gaps in the text by using a chronologically-fragmented time structure. In the opening chapter, we are catapulted between Ellen's present in the home with her new mama and her past with her real mama who dies. In this first chapter, we discover that it will be our task to organize the details into a coherent story, a story that will allow us to understand Ellen's journey from past to present.
Gibbons' choice to omit punctuation around the dialogue also opens gaps. It is often unclear how much of the dialogue is spoken aloud, and how much occurs only in Ellen's head. Further, there are shifts in just who is being addressed, as in this scene just after the death of Ellen's mama's mama:
You two go ahead and fight over who did not take care of the other one's mama. You two pass the blame back and forth like butter at your tables and I'll stay out of this circle …. And even when she was so dead I could not help her anymore I made her like a present to Jesus so maybe he would take her. Take this one I got prettied up and mark it down by my name to balance against this one I held back from you before.
Here, at the beginning of the paragraph, Ellen seems to be talking to her two aunts. Suddenly, we realize that she is praying to God. Such devices force us to reread passages, and as we reread, our understanding of the text shifts and grows.
Another strategy used by reader-response critics is to examine instances of reading in the text. Certainly, Ellen Foster is filled with such instances. Ellen is a reader, although she "can hardly tolerate the stories we read for school." The happy families in her school books hold no interest for her; she would rather read "old books." One of her early favorites is the "laughing Middle Ages lady that wore red boots." This reference is clearly to Chaucer's Wife of Bath, a character who believes that experience, not authority, ought to be at the heart of learning. The Wife, a victim of spousal abuse, tells a story in which the main character must discover the answer to the question, "What do women most desire?" The answer is control over their own lives. The inclusion of this small allusion offers us insight into Ellen and into what she desires most herself.
There are many instances of reading in Ellen Foster that do not concern books, however. Her teacher "reads" a bruise on Ellen's arm, using her understanding of the bruise to fill in Ellen's story of her treatment at her father's hands. This reading demonstrates the power of text: by fixing meaning on the bruise, the teacher is able to effect real change in Ellen's life, leading to removal from her father's home.
Further, Ellen's "reading" of the ink blots put in front of her by the school social worker (the "man who comes and gets [her] out of social studies") clues us in to the depths of her distress, even as she denies it:
Then I saw big holes a body could fall right into. Big black deep holes through the table and the floor. And then he took off his glasses and screwed his face up to mine and tells me I'm scared.
I used to be but I am not now is what I told him. I might get a little nervous but I am never scared.
Ellen also reveals that she has a sophisticated understanding of the reading process and the importance of text. She understands that the made-up stories Nadine and Dora tell each other offer them some comfort, and that these stories "help them get along." Ellen also understands the ways texts change as the reader rereads. She revisits her own experiences with Starletta's family, changing the way she reads race and its importance in human relationships.
Ellen's rereading of Starletta and her family offers us a final focus on the reading process. Certainly, Ellen's reconstruction of her interactions with Starletta's family allows her to reach a better understanding of race; but we need to remember that Starletta has not participated. As Ellen lies in bed next to the silent Starletta, she reads Starletta in much the same way that the school social worker reads Ellen:
And then he will not let go of a word but he has to bend and pull and stretch what I said into something he can see on paper and see how it has changed like a miracle into exactly what he wanted me to say.
Ellen reads Starletta's life as a text, bending, pulling, and stretching that life in order to make meaning out of her own life. Further, Ellen uses Starletta's life as a yardstick against which to measure her own journey toward adulthood: "I came a way to get here but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther."
Likewise, as readers, we want this to be a story with a happy ending about racial harmony and maturity. We, too, read like Ellen, (and like the school social worker), as we make meaning out of her relationship with Starletta. However, although this is the ending we want (and perhaps need), we ought to recall Starletta's difficulty with reading, and with speaking. When we do this, we see that the text is here at its most open. Starletta's life is an open text in the same way that Ellen Foster is an open text, offering the reader multiple avenues for interpretation, and raising the moral implications of reading another's life in order to make meaning of one's own.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, critic Veronica Makowsky explores Kaye Gibbons's use of food as a major metaphor to describe the main character of Ellen Foster as she develops in Gibbons's novel of the same name.
Ellen Foster is Gibbons's attempt to rewrite the saga of the American hero by changing "him" to "her" and to rewrite the southern female bildungsroman by changing its privileged, sheltered, upper-class heroine to a poor, abused outcast…. Ellen faces the psychological and spiritual problems of growing up, but she must also confront sexual abuse, homelessness and, above all, hunger….
The novel opens with ten-year-old Ellen trying to shield her sick mother from her father's abuse. Ellen's mother has just returned from the hospital for treatment of the chronic heart condition she acquired in her youth from rheumatic fever, which Ellen calls "romantic fever." Ellen's malapropism is actually quite accurate since her mother married beneath her class in what she must have believed to be a romantic escape from her own overbearing mother. Her mistake is glaringly obvious as Ellen's boorish father insists that her invalid mother make dinner, though she is plainly incapable of feeding anyone. Ellen comments that her mother "would prop herself up by the refrigerator" and "looks like she could crawl under the table." Because these props of domesticity—the refrigerator and kitchen table—are inadequate, Ellen herself must act as substitute homemaker. Her thoughts turn more to contamination, however, than to nurture: "What can I do but go and reach the tall things for her? I set that dinner table and like to take a notion to spit on his fork."
With Ellen's help, her mother gets dinner on the table and fulfills her physical role as nurturer, but she never learns to nurture herself. All she wants to ingest is an overdose of her medication in order to escape her unbearable marriage. Again, Ellen takes on the parental role as she implores: "Vomit them up, mama. I'll stick my finger down your throat and you can vomit them up. She looks at me and I see she will not vomit. She will not move." Ellen's mother is so debilitated physically and mentally that she poisons herself and can look at, but not nurture, her only child. Her father refuses to allow Ellen to call for help and later, as Ellen rests in bed beside her dying mother, she asserts, "And I will crawl in and make room for myself. My heart can be the one that beats." Ellen is expressing contradictory desires: to return to the womb's safety where she was fed and to take over the life-sustaining role of the mother's heartbeat and nourishing bloodstream.
Although Ellen's mother is totally unable to nurture her child at the beginning of the novel, in her earlier seasons of relatively good health she taught Ellen the lessons about life to which Ellen clings after her death. Ellen's favorite memory is of gardening with her mother.
She nursed all the plants and put even the weeds she pulled up in little piles along the rows. My job was to pick the piles up and dispose of them. I was small my own self and did not have the sense to tell between weeds and plants.
I just worked in the trail my mama left.
When the beans were grown ready to eat she would let me help pick. Weeds do not bear fruit. She would give me a example of a bean that is grown good to hold in one hand while I picked with the other. If I was not sure if a particular bean was at the right stage I could hold up my example of a bean to that bean in question and know.
Once again, through the production of food, Gibbons suggests that from her mother Ellen learned not only right from wrong, beans from weeds, but also what an exemplary adult is, a model who has grown "to the right stage." After her mother's death, Ellen desperately needs these lessons as she confronts a series of caretakers who cannot or will not feed her, physically or mentally.
Ellen's father has plainly not grown to the "right stage"—he still expects others to nurture him. When her mother was in the hospital, Ellen had to supply her place as nurturer: "If I did not feed us both we had to go into town and get takeout chicken." After her mother's death, he expects ten-year-old Ellen to replace her mother sexually as well. The perverse immaturity of his sexuality is evident in his focus on Ellen's body as baby food, milk and candy. "You got girl ninnies he might say…. Somebody else calling out sugar blossom britches might sound sweet but it was nasty from him." Although we might like to believe Ellen's father is a rare monster, Gibbons evidently intends him to represent a socially pervasive view of women as objects for consumption. His black drinking buddies advise him, again in eating imagery, on the night that he rapes her: "Yours is just about ripe. You gots to git em when they is still soff when you mashum."
While her father is attempting to consume her, Ellen is trying to feed herself.
The only hard part was the food. The whole time I stayed with him he either ate at the Dinette in town or did without. I would not go to the restaurant with him because I did not want to be seen with him. That is all.
I fed myself OK. I tried to make what we had at school but I found the best deal was the plate froze with food already on it. A meat, two vegetables, and a dab of dessert.
Ellen is not just putting food in her stomach; she is attempting to maintain her standards. She will not eat with her father, especially in public, but she still manages to fulfill the nutritional requirements she learned in school. Although she may be keeping her dignity before the outside world, eating the proper food groups, and physically starving, the "froze food" indicates spiritually cold comfort.
Not all the standards she retains from her past help nurture her. Ellen's refuge is the house of her black friend Starletta which "always smells like fried meat" and where Starletta's "mama is at the stove boiling and frying." Starletta's parents welcome Ellen, assure her of a haven against her father's abuse and even take her shopping for clothes, but Ellen cannot accept them as a substitute family because, as she says, "I would not even eat in a colored house." The tenacity with which Ellen clings to her standards betrays her in this instance because she cannot differentiate between the content of nourishing love and the packaging color: "No matter how good it looks to you it is still a colored biscuit."
By court order Ellen is sent to live with her maternal grandmother who, unfortunately, is not a sweet, white-haired old lady ready to feed the poor child milk and cookies, as Ellen quickly perceives: "My mama's mama picked me up in her long car that was like the undertaking car only hers was cream." Ellen's recognition of her grandmother's poisonous propensities is evident in her association of her grandmother's car with a hearse and food ("cream"), as well as her refusal to use the word "grandmother." Ellen's intuitions are accurate since her grandmother is taking Ellen not to nurture her, but to punish her for her mother's death, persisting in the belief that a ten-year-old child could and would connive with her father to poison her mother. Ellen's grandmother will not acknowledge that her mistreatment of her daughter helped precipitate her fatal marriage but projects the blame on Ellen and makes the small girl work in the fields in the intense heat of summer.
Ellen's grandmother provides her with sufficient food "just because she did not have it in her to starve a girl" but does not mind starving her for affection. "We ate right many miniature chickens or turkeys. I do not know the difference. But they were baked and not crunchy the way I most enjoy chicken. When we both ate at the same Sunday table we both picked at our little individual chickens and turkeys and did not talk. And still it was OK by me."
Her grandmother upholds class distinctions at the expense of pleasure and communion as they eat baked chicken, instead of the satisfyingly vulgar fried, and "individual chickens and turkeys" instead of food from a common serving dish. Ellen's insistence that she was glad they did not talk shows how much she has lost hope in her grandmother as nurturer. She had early decided that "she might be a witch but she has the dough"; later, "I called her the damn witch to myself and all the money she had did not matter anymore. That is something when you consider how greedy I am." Ellen has learned that there is more to a meal than food on the table and that society's substitution of money for "dough" produces an inedible mess.
Once again Ellen is placed in a situation in which she must nurture an adult, first mentally and then physically. Her grandmother feeds her hate on the sight of Ellen. "Her power was the sucking kind that takes your good sense and leaves you limp like a old zombie…. She would take all the feeling she needed from somebody and then stir it up with some money and turn the recipe back on you." Ellen is force-fed her grandmother's hate, but is unable to regurgitate it because she cannot separate the hatred from her identity. "It is like when you are sick and you know all the things you ever ate or just wanted to eat are churning in you now and you will be sick to relieve yourself but the relief is a dream you let yourself believe because you know the churning is all there is to you."
Although she recognizes her grandmother's hatred, Ellen takes care of her in her final illness and follows the doctor's advice to "feed her particular foods." Ellen does not feed her grandmother out of love but because her grandmother has perversely fed Ellen's feelings of irrational guilt over her mother's death, consuming Ellen's "good sense" in knowing that a ten-year-old child could not prevail against her father.
Despite Ellen's care, her grandmother dies, and she is reluctantly taken in by her mother's widowed sister Nadine, who has a daughter about Ellen's age. As Ellen expects, Nadine is solely concerned with nurturing Dora and regards Ellen as an intruder on their relationship, much as her late husband must have been. Ellen comments, "I stayed in the spare bedroom Nadine's old husband lived in. He did not die flat out but he had a stroke or something and wasted away in here." Ellen forsees a similar starvation for herself but tries to avert it. "I thought about taking my meals in my room but I did not like the picture of me eating off a tray slid to me like I was on death row. So I would eat at the table like normal." "Like normal" appears to be a false simulacrum because Nadine rids herself of the indigestible intruder by throwing Ellen out of the house on Christmas day.
Having learned that blood ties do not necessarily nurture, Ellen tries a nontraditional family. She throws herself on the mercy of a woman who takes foster children. Naively, she believes that "foster" is the family's name and renames herself accordingly, but once again her linguistic error points to truth since "to foster" means to further growth, or, in other words, to nurture. The reader knows Ellen's hunch about this woman is correct when Ellen smells fried chicken as she enters the house, picking up a three-day-old scent that she, in her desperation, apprehends.
Ellen repeatedly refers to her new home in terms of gratified hunger. "There is a plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more." Cooking becomes associated with the rituals of community and love as the children and their foster mother cook their week's lunches on Sunday and receive individual cooking lessons during the week. The kitchen is no longer a place of conflict or empty routines, but is filled with affection. Ellen says of her foster mother that "she is there each day in the kitchen and that is something when you consider she does not have to be there but she is there so I can squeeze her and be glad."
Although Ellen is certainly much happier, her continuing obsession with food shows how deeply traumatized she is from years without nourishing affection.
If I am very hungry my dress comes off of me in a heartbeat. Sometimes I hurry too fast and I forget to unzip my back. It is helpless to smell lunch through a dress that is hung on your face. I have busted a zipper and ripped two neck collars trying to strip and my new mama told me some things about patience.
I stay starved though.
This comment comes approximately midway through the novel, which is narrated in a series of contrasting flashbacks to Ellen's life at her foster home. As the novel continues, Ellen's references to food decline dramatically, as if she begins to feel secure about food and affection.
By the end of the novel Ellen has learned the folly of social distinctions according to class and race, in addition to those she had learned about "blood" kin. She can assert that if Starletta "tells me to I will lick the glass she uses just to show that I love her and being colored is just the way she is." When her foster mother allows her to invite Starletta to spend the weekend and to request her favorite dishes, Ellen remarks that Starletta "could see how I enjoy staying laid up in my bed waiting for supper to cook. And you can guess what all is on the menu." Since Ellen is now nurtured by an adult, she can share that nurturing with someone younger and less privileged than herself, as evidenced in the last lines of the novel. "And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe. That will always amaze me." The imagery recalls Ellen's favorite memory of growing beans with her mother and indicates that she sees woman's lot as hard, "work[ing] in the trail [her] mama left," but she can lend a hand to the next woman down the trail, so that all will be fed.
Ellen has certainly mastered Emerson's lesson of self-reliance, but that is not an end in itself, and although her gutsy, vernacular voice recalls Huck Finn, she does not light out for the territories in an attempt to maintain that autonomy…. Through Ellen, Gibbons redefines self-reliance, not as a willed and threatened isolation, but as the maturity that enables an act of faith in others and, in turn, that allows a girl to contribute to, as well as receive from, the female tradition of community and nurturance.
Source: Veronica Makowsky, " 'The Only Hard Part Was the Food': Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbon's Novels," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring, 1992, pp. 103-12.
Pearl K. Bell, "Southern Discomfort," The New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 9, February 29, 1988, pp. 38-41.
Deanna D'Errico, Review in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 3, No. 1, September-October, 1987, p. 9.
Review of Ellen Foster, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LV, No. 6, March 15, 1987, p. 404.
Review of Ellen Foster, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 231, No. 11, March 20, 1987, p. 70.
Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, University of California Press, 1972.
Alice Hoffman, "Shopping for a New Family," in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 13.
Brad Hooper, review in Booklist, Vol. 84, No. 1, September 1, 1987, p. 27.
Veronica Makowsky, " 'The Only Hard Part Was the Food': Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons's Novels," inSouthern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring 1992, pp. 103-112.
"On Tour: Kaye Gibbons," in Hungry Mind Review: An Independent Book Review, November 22, 1997, http://www.bookwire.com/hmr/REVIEW/tgibbons.html.
Linda Taylor, "A Kind of Primitive Charm," in The Sunday Times, London, May 8, 1988, p. G6.
Leonore Fleischer, "Is It Art Yet?," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 231, May 8, 1987, p. 34.
An account of how Ellen Foster was written and published.
Kaye Gibbons, "My Mother, Literature, and a Life Split Neatly into Two Halves," in The Writer on Her Work, Vol. II, edited by Janet Sternburg, Norton, 1991, pp. 52-60.
An autobiographical account of how Gibbons became a writer and the influence her mother has had on her.
Focusing mainly on the works of Walker Percy, this article answers the question "What is Southern Literature?," giving rich historical and cultural background to this literary tradition. Gibbons is mentioned as an example of a writer in the Southern women's tradition.
Julian Mason, "Kaye Gibbons (1960-)," in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-bibliographical Source-book, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 156-68.
Mason provides a brief biographical account of Gibbons, along with an analysis of some of the major themes in her writing.
Don O'Briant, "Seeing Beyond Illness," in y'all the arts: arts, entertainment, fun and silly things people do, December 2, 1997, http://www.yall.com/thearts/quill/gibbons.html.
An interview with Gibbons that touches on her beginnings as a writer, her family life, her novels, and her manic depression.
Bob Summer, "PW interviews," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, February 8, 1993, pp. 60-61.
An interview with Kaye Gibbons in which she discusses the autobiographical aspects of Ellen Foster and the difficulties she encountered when writing her fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life.