Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

This is one of the books for my Reading America project; a project I’m not doing a particularly good job at sticking to as I keep going off on tangents (mainly pioneer related), but nevertheless, I am slowly but surely making my way through the list. Ellen Foster, I had heard, was a particularly good account of an unconventional Southern childhood, with a genuine and haunting voice of an eleven year old girl narrating the tale of an alcoholic, abusive father, a dead mother, an unsympathetic family, and a hopeful ending. I was excited to read it, especially as I enjoyed Kaye Gibbons’ novel Sights Unseen a few months ago, and from the start, the voice of Ellen; spunky, brave, forthright, pragmatic, far too grown up for her age, yet touchingly naive, drew me in completely to her story.

Ellen lives with her parents in a tumbledown house in the South. Her mother, from a distinguished, wealthy family, married ‘down’, to a farmer who quickly became dependent on alcohol, and abusive to boot. Ellen’s mother has a weak heart, and can’t cope with the stress and anguish of her husband’s continual abuse. At the beginning of the book, she dies, of what is implied to be an overdose, and Ellen is left alone to live with her father, who couldn’t care less that Ellen is there. Ellen manages to feed and clothe herself through the money she takes from her father, but after he starts to sexually abuse her during drunken rampages with his friends, she flees the house to seek refuge with her mother’s sister. Unwanted there, she then moves on to her grandmother, who also doesn’t want her, and blames her for her daughter’s death. After her grandmother dies, Ellen is taken in by her mother’s other sister, but the grudging care given to her by her selfish aunt soon leads Ellen to find a new mother who will love her and give her the home and family she has longed for, and in this woman, who is no relation to her, she finds what she has spent her short life searching for.

Interspersed within this plot of Ellen searching for a family is her experience of watching the life of another, loving, family; that of her younger friend Starletta. Starletta is black and in a newly desegregated America, racism is still very much a reality. While Ellen loves Starletta and is embraced warmly by her sympathetic parents, she still thinks of them as dirty and won’t eat in their house or sleep there. Her childish ignorance is evident through these attitudes, clearly picked up from the adults around her, and which she has not yet had an opportunity to weigh and measure for herself.  Despite her racist attitude and her often vitriolic thoughts about her father and mother’s family, Ellen is still affectionate, passionate, wise and determined, and a wonderful character who comes to life through the clever use of language; I really felt that I was listening to the voice of a largely uneducated 11 year old, whose life had been too filled with pain and disappointment, forcing her into a sometimes frighteningly mature outlook on life, tinged with a heartbreaking childish naivety that gives her the vulnerability she tries so hard not to show.

You know from the start that all will turn out fine for Ellen, as the narrative isn’t linear and jumps forward and back in time, with Ellen reminiscing about how she came to be with her ‘New Mama’ and become part of the ‘Foster Family’. However, it is the journey of Ellen’s life, of what she learns, of what she experiences, and what she takes from it, that provides the interest. Only 120-odd pages, it’s a very quick glimpse into a life I wish no child would have to experience, and its brevity gives it both a breathless, childish feel, but also an air of lightweight insignificance. For, as much as I loved Ellen’s voice, I didn’t think the book itself was particularly good. Chosen for Oprah’s book club and lauded as an American classic, I had expectations that such a slim novel filled largely with cliches and not enough character development could ever fulfil. Compared to Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, Ellen Foster just doesn’t hold a candle to two such prominent and iconic accounts of childhood. What particularly annoyed me was the completely unnecessary and cliched inclusion of Starletta; the issue of race felt tacked on for the mere purpose of showing that this was a novel set in the South and that Racism Is Wrong, and Gibbons’ stereotyped depiction of the simple yet good hearted Black people felt trite and uncomfortable.

Obviously, for a book written through the eyes of a child, not all the characters are going to be developed, not everything is going to make sense, and behaviours will appear exaggerated or incomprehensible, as they would be to an eleven year old. There also, perhaps, can be little plot or ‘point’; this is Ellen’s story of her journey to find a family, and as she is only 11, her life is far from complete. However, Ellen doesn’t grow or change much over the course of the novel, and her ‘revelation’ about her racist attitudes at the end felt wholly out of place, and a rushed attempt to bring ‘closure’ to a novel that could never really offer any, for Ellen’s life and struggles are far from over. As such I was left wondering what exactly Gibbons had been trying to say through Ellen Foster, and what she wanted to achieve; I just didn’t ‘get’ it. This is rare for me; I can usually find meaning and point in most novels, but like Sights Unseen, this felt largely aimless, which I found disconcerting, and ultimately, unsatisfying.

It’s an odd book, really; half accomplished and wonderful, and half a soggy mess of cliches and indecision. Despite my misgivings, I still enjoyed the experience of reading this, and I wouldn’t recommend that you not read it. I would, however, advise that you go in with caution. Perhaps lowered expectations might enhance the reading experience somewhat. My thanks must also go to a dear reader of my blog who sent me his own lovely edition of this; it was much appreciated!

14 comments

  1. It’s been years since I read this one, but I didn’t care for it enough to keep it on the shelves. You did a great job summarizing it, though. Thanks for the review.

  2. Hmm…never heard of this one. Sounds like I wasn’t missing much. “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be a good alternative for an American classic about life in the South and racism. It’s beautifully written, and pretty hilarious to boot.

  3. I felt the same way about Ellen Foster, Rachel. I remember it, probably for its voice of a child and the violence aspects, but, I doubt I would ever read it again. I think it was made into a tv movie as well, and, maybe that is what bothered me. There are so many books these days that read as if they have been written for the purpose of later becoming a movie.

    You give a great synopsis of the book and good for you for giving it a try.

    1. I’m glad I’m not alone, Penny! Yes I agree – so many books have ‘movie deal’ written all over them, which gives them a falseness I can’t bear! Thank you – I’m disappointed I didn’t enjoy it more but sometimes that’s the way it goes!

  4. Thanks for the clear-eyed review. I read a short summary of it awhile back and my thought was: can we have a Southern character who maybe didn’t have an alcoholic parent? Apparently not. Cliche is exactly the word.
    Can I digress a bit? Reading your blog I’ve become interested in the books that would make up an American childrens canon versus a British one. For America, I would think: The Little House books, Old Yeller, Johnny Tremain, Caddie Woodlawn, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Oh, others, but that’s off the top of my head. I’m sure I’ve read much of what might be in the British canon, but as you haven’t read Little House, I do wonder what I might be missing. Some day, if you ever get time, would you consider a post or a comment on this?

    1. You are welcome, Nancy! Yes, if I didn’t know better, from all of the ‘Southern’ books I’ve read, the entire South is full of alcoholic abusive men and old women on porches! Rather upsettingly cliched!

      What a great list of American children’s books – I’m going to have to check these all out! I would love to do a post on quintessential British children’s literature – I will certainly oblige!!

  5. I’ve only read one Kaye Gibbons book and I found it similarly meandering and episodic. It also had a very engaging voice, though, which made up for its aimlessness. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve read a whole lot of American novels (and hadn’t read any before), and I feel like I notice a real tendency towards episodic narrative in them – Huck Finn, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Moo by Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Dawn Powell’s novels, Richard Russo, John Irvine, Garrison Keiller, Henry Miller…. And yet whenever I write about it on my blog, my American friends say they don’t notice the difference between episodic and plot-driven narratives and don’t think American fiction particularly episodic. Hmmmm. I don’t suppose it works for genre fiction, which has its own rules, but in terms of classics or contemporary literature, it does work for me.

    1. You have a point – a lot of American novels – mainly more modern ones – are far more meandering and essentially lacking in ‘point’ than British ones. I wonder why this is. Perhaps because British fiction is rooted in a very traditional novel structure whereas American fiction has had more scope to be experimental? I don’t know. Something to ponder!

  6. Oh God YES to all of this. I had to read Ellen Foster in ninth grade and I hated it so much. It’s one of the books that was responsible for putting me off “Southern literature” near-permanently — now if I like a book set in the South, I feel like it doesn’t count as “Southern literature” because I didn’t hate it. Ellen Foster. Grrrrr.

  7. I’m not originally from the south (not originally from the United States either, for that matter), but I’ve lived in the south off and on for the last 40 years (including right now). I find there’s a type of “southern” fiction, usually written since the Civil Rights movement but set before then, in which a courageous white person befriends or helps a black person, thereby somehow negating all of the terrible things that have happened as a result of the Jim Crow laws and institutionalized racism of the time & place–and also (not coincidently) making the white person the center of the struggle. These books have a very self-congratulatory tone–as if the white protagonist was the first person to truly understand the racist system. THE HELP is the book that immediately springs to my mind (I’m completely mystified by its popularity) when I think of this phenomenon, but the whole subplot of Ellen Foster involving Starletta (which sounds like a made-up name–the sort of name a person who didn’t know too many black people would think sounded like a black person’s name) comes across as the same sort of thing to me.

    1. Yes you are exactly right – it frustrates and angers me too. As if it negates everything that happened. The obviousness and clichedness of it felt so awkward in Ellen Foster and I just don’t like it that race becomes yet another story about white people’s superiority in such novels. ‘Oh look isn’t she enlightened for liking black people’. It leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

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