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Ellen Foster

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

With an opening line like “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy”, it’s no wonder that the book Ellen Foster grabs a reader’s attention and pulls them in with both hands.

I wound up with this engrossing debut novel by author Kaye Gibbons completely by chance. Taking part in a book exchange at my writers’ group’s holiday party, I mulled over the pile of brightly wrapped mystery packages and finally chose a slim little volume to take home with me. After I’d pulled off the festive paper, I flipped it over to read the back, like so many people do when they pick up a new book. The blurbs exclaimed that the author was “A stunning new writer,” and that the story itself was “A lovely sometimes heartwrenching novel…” Those were some intriguing accolades, so I decided to just open it up and dive right in.

Meeting Ellen, the narrator of the book and the main focus of the story, I could tell almost immediately that she was a young girl, but I wouldn't keep finding out more until I read on. Gibbons does an excellent job of measuring out information in small doses, so that as a reader, we have enough to go on to keep us in the loop, but are still left curious and eager to learn more.

Right away, it’s revealed that Ellen has been removed from her home by the county, and as she starts to look back on the past two years or so that have passed since then, the skillful, slow unfolding of the story takes place. We find out that her father is an alcoholic and her mother was ill, and Ellen learned to basically take care of not only herself, but her parents too. Her language varies between sounding very wise for her age, and still sounding young (at one point, she explains that she thinks her mom has a heart condition because she’d suffered from “romantic fever” when she was a girl), so it’s hard to tell exactly how old Ellen might be. In an especially moving scene, she lies in bed with her mother even after she realizes that she’s died, and we see that while her circumstances may have forced her to grow up faster than she should have had to, she’s still a child trying to muddle her way through an unfair and complicated life.

Besides carefully doling out details (we eventually learn that Ellen was around nine years old when the story starts), one of the writing techniques that Gibbons uses so well is the way she volleys back and forth in the narrative, starting with the present and then having Ellen flash back to talk about the past. Telling a story this way can be tricky; you don’t want details to get confused or have a reader get frustrated by the switching around and find themselves getting lost in the timeline of the plot. The way Gibbons works it in doesn’t do any of this though; she finds connections that make it feel like skipping between the present and the past is one of the best ways that the reader can fit the puzzle of the brave little heroine’s backstory together.

Ellen Foster author Kaye Gibbons
And Ellen herself is a puzzle; the reader gets to be privy to her thoughts and feelings as she grapples with the aftereffects of her past even as she looks forward to a brighter future. In flashbacks, we see her handling situations remarkably well, keeping calm and being very logical about what to do when most other kids her age probably would have been at a complete loss. Getting further into the novel though, you begin to wonder if her composure is a defense mechanism learned from growing up like she did, if it’s her sense of pride and not reality exactly as it happened as she retells the story a couple of years later, or both.

Set in the Southern United States, Ellen Foster touches on issues of race and social class, but does so mostly through the eyes and experiences of Ellen. In a scene where she goes to her best friend Starletta’s house and tells the reader about their home and their lifestyle, it’s plain to see where adult thinking and comments have influenced her thoughts. We get more insights throughout the book, and figure out how these same issues have caused Ellen’s grandmother to basically disown her mother and to harbor an unfair and cruel contempt for Ellen herself.

With heavy-hitting topics like these in the book, you might think it’s a downer of a read. But Gibbons tempers it with doses of humor and hope, making it hard to put down once you start reading it. It’s a modest-sized novel; 126 pages in the copy that I have, and I blew through it in one day. Again, it was the pull of the story and the way it’s written that kept stringing me along though, making me grumble when everyday tasks got in the way and I had to stop reading until I was able to pick it up again.

Not surprisingly, Ellen Foster won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was given a special citation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. It was also turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1997, which earned a Primetime Emmy nomination.

A still from the Ellen Foster TV movie
Author Kaye Gibbons has also written A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, Charms for the Easy Life, Sights Unseen, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, and Divining Women.  In 2006, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster was published, a sequel that brings readers back to Ellen’s story when she's 15 years old.

After just discovering Ellen’s story and the fantastic writer who brought it to life, I’ll be on the lookout for the sequel and any of Gibbons’ other work.

What about you, 2FL readers? What was the last book that you read that you just couldn’t put down?