Ellen Foster which is written by Kaye Gibbons was first published by Algonquin Books in 1987
Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina in 1960.
While she went to the University of North Carolina she wrote her debut novel ‘Ellen Foster’. She has received many different awards for this novel in which we hear about an eleven-year-old orphan named Ellen.The storyIn the beginning of the story Ellen’s mother dies. She stays at home with her dad for a while, but he is increasingly violent and drinks more and more. One evening he tries to rape Ellen, and after that she decides to run away. She stays at her black friend Starletta’s house for one night, then she returns home, packs her things and calls her aunt, Betsy.
Betsy lets her stay for the weekend but drives her home again Sunday. Once she is back home again she decides to go to school. The teachers notice a bruise on her arm and will not let her go home again. They ask her if she has anywhere else to go. All she can think of is Starletta’s house, but that will not do.
Ellen’s art teacher, Julia, lets her stay with her and her husband, Roy, for a while. They are both very ‘open minded’ and Ellen has never experienced the love and equality that the two people live with. Ellen is really happy ther but after a while (about six months) her family wants her back, and they have to go to court.Ellen now has to stay with her mother’s mother. But the grandmother does not like Ellen.
She has her father’s eyes, she says, and that is reason enough for her to slap her in the face. Ellen is sent out to work in the cotton fields together with the blacks. After a couple of months Ellen’s dad, Bill, dies. Yet another couple of months go by and Ellen’s grandmother dies too. She now moves in with her aunt, Nadine, and her cousin, Dora. She does not stay there very long.
She cannot stand them, and when for Christmas she only gets the paper she asked for, and not a lot of expensive presents like Dora got, she runs away. She runs to her new mama’s house, where she is still staying…CharactersThe main character is eleven-year-old Ellen, who loses both her parents and becomes and orphan. She is a very emotional child.
She expresses some of these feelings by painting and drawing, e.g. through the picture she calls ‘Brooding Ocean’, which looks both strong, beautiful and sad at the same time. She feels guilty about her mother’s death. She is very prejudiced, which also shows in her relationship with her black friend Starletta, where she is the dominant figure. Ellen is also a person, who is very concerned with order.
In her room at her new mama’s house she tells us that everything matches (p. 5) and she will not colour with a broke crayon, so she tapes all Starletta’s crayon pieces together like they are supposed to be (p. 31). All in all she does not ‘think’ like a child – she does not believe in Santa Claus and she knows that she cannot count on getting everything she wants – she has lost the hope you have when you are a child. Another of Ellen’s characteristics is her self-awareness and her desire to create a good life for herself, this shows e.g.
while Ellen is a girl scout and she is lying to get all the badges.Bill is Ellen’s biological father. He dies from a cerebral haemorrhage caused by his alcoholism. He is very violent and it got worse after Ellen’s mother died.
Once, he even tried to rape Ellen. Most of Bill’s ‘friends’ are black, and they buy liquor from him. He has two brothers, Rudolph and Ellis.Ellen’s biological mother is not much bigger than Ellen. She is very ill and she dies when she takes an overdose of her medicine.
But she hadreally good livimng conditions as a child, a.o.t. she did not have to work.
Rudolph and Ellis are Bill’s brothers. They provide Ellen and Bill with money. Ellis dies. After Bill’s death, Rudolph brings Ellen some of her father’s things, while she is staying with her grandmother.
-He is one of the few that contradicts the grandmother.Ellen’s grandmother is very powerful, probably because of her wealth. She owns a cotton plantation, where some black people work. She also buys the farm that Ellen and Bill live on. She love her daughter very much but she does not like Ellen because she has her father’s eyes – and she hates Bill! She dies of influenza and natural ageing.Nadine Nelson is one of Ellen’s mother’s two sisters.
She says she is afraid of black people. Nadine has a daughter, Dora, but no husband. She is a widow. She is nice on the outside, and she likes Ellen, but she loves Dora much more, and almost lets her control her. This is seen for example when Ellen has painted a picture for them, Nadine is nice while Ellen is there and says that she will hang it up the next day, but when Ellen has left the room Dora announce that she does not want it on the wall, and therefore the picture does not get up, or at least it will be taken down again as soon as Ellen has left.
.. Dora is very spoiled by her mom. Ellen says:”You two are bumping around in this house lost and foolish over each other”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p.
114)This comment pretty much sums up their characters and their relationship with each other.Betsy is the other of Ellen’s mother’s sisters. She is nice and lets Ellen stay for a weekend but she does not want her to stay longer! She does not have any children of her own and therefore she spoils Ellen while she is staying there. Betsy does not have a husband either.
Julia is Ellen’s art teacher and Roy is her husband. They both have an ‘open mind’ – They are very loving, not prejudiced and they share the work at there house (-it is not divided in male and female work). They were both raised in the northeast, so they have probably not grown up with the same racism that existed in the south. But they both liked the south, therefore they moved down there.Mavis is a black woman, who works in the cotton fields owned by Ellen’s grandmother. She seems a very ‘wise’ and Ellen learns a lot from her, just by observing her and her family, e.
g. that there are people living under worse conditions than her and they can still enjoy themselves.Starletta is Ellen’s friend. She is black and lives in a shack with her parents. She attends the same school as Ellen.
Roger, Stella, Francis and Jo Jo are the other children staying at Ellen’s new mama’s house. Roger is Stella’s baby, she is only in the 7th grade, though.Ellen’s new mama is very nice and friendly. She takes good care of the children that stays at the house, and she lets them be kids. She knows her ‘duties’ as an adult and a mom.LanguageThe tone throughout most of the story makes you feel the anger that has been Ellen’s experience of growing up, an example of that is when Ellen says:”When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p.
1)That does not exactly evoke your sympathy for her, but I think most people do feel a bit sorry for her when the read and understand why she is so angry.Ellen uses a lot of metaphors and figures of speech, which you can connect to a certain part of the country, which is here the Deep South of the USA. It also shows that Ellen is just a kid who has been going to school very long. An example of a metaphor is when Ellen explains that the preacher:”.
..goes straight to the green valleys and and the streets of silver and gold”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster, p. 20)And an example of her spoken language:”It is the kind of dress that decorates you in the front and the back both”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p. 98)The most important symbol, I think, is her own painting, that she calls ‘Brooding Ocean*, which she says look strong, beautiful and sad at the same time.
I think the painting symbolizes her personality and her feelings. She has a strong personality because she ha shad to manage herself for such a long time. She also has a beautiful personality because she is always trying to do her best, and in the end of the story she realises that coloured people in general have had more difficulties than she has ever had , so she does not feel sorry for herself! Even though she expresses more anger than sadness in the story, I think she has been really sad because of the things that has happened to her.Another symbol I want to mention is the pony Dolphin, she rides at her new mama’s house.
About Dolphin, Ellen tells us:”I do not have to worry about snakes anymore here. The pony scaresthem off and I am up high anyway so they cannot bite me”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p. 22)I think this is a symbol for the safety that her new family is able to provide her with.One of the primary metaphors that reoccur throughout the novel is the microscope. I think that the microscope symbolizes Ellen’s dreams.
She always brings it with her, and she likes looking in it and therefore she paints pictures of what she sees in it too. She is the only one who can be fascinated by these paintings and that suggests that it is because everybody else already have what she is dreaming of, which is a nice, loving family, that can provide her with money and safety, so she can be a kid. We do not hear about her looking in the microscope that much after she has moved in with her new family either. She bought it for herself while she still lived with her father, as the only Christmas present she got that year.
ThemesRacial relationships and attitudes is a major theme in Ellen Foster. We also see Ellen go through some changes in her opinion about coloured people. In the beginning she is really affected by her family and the community she lives in, which of course is white. In the beginning Ellen even tells us that she will not drink from a glass that has touched a coloured person’s lips. But later on, after she has stayed with Roy and Julia, worked in the cotton fields with Mavis and now lives at her new mama’s house, they have all affected her opinion, and by their open-mindedness and kindness she now, perhaps not understand, but realises what coloured people have been going through because of white people, and she is no longer so prejudiced as she was before:”I came a long way to get here but if you think about it realhard you will see that old Starletta came even farther (.
..) Andall this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p. 126)With this comment I think she I stalking about the development in black people’s rights.Another of the major themes of “Ellen Foster” is how much responsibility or control individuals have over their own lives.
Ellen expresses this herself when she is telling about how why, when and why she decided to run to her new mama’s house:”… I think I am somebody now because I saidby damn this is how it is going to be.
..”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p. 95)She is expressing a will, so if you have the will you can do anything.
Money and the good and bad effects of having it or not having it is also an important theme.We see how the wealth have affected Ellen’s grandmother, and how the poverty to some extent has dictated Ellen and her father’s lives in the beginning of the story. At one point Ellen says:”All I really cared about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle”(Kaye Gibbons, “Ellen Foster”, p.
61)These are all themes which concerns the modern world as well.Personal evaluation of “Ellen Foster”I think that “Ellen Foster is a really good novel because it includes so many things. With that I mean that you hear both about race, class (both social and economic), gender, values, fate, circumstances, and personal responsibility. I think that it is both amazing and scaring how such a young kid learns so much about life in such a short time. The ending is really good because you see how an eleven-year-old can turn her life into what she wants it to be. She comes from something bad and turns it into something good, which we can all learn something from…