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Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster (1987)

by Kaye Gibbons

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,981562,834 (3.68)1 / 127
  1. 52
    The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (rbtanger)
  2. 20
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (petterw)
    petterw: Similarly, Ellen Foster tells a story in the voice of a child, and the reader must fill in the blanks.
  3. 10
    The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  4. 01
    Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff (rbtanger)
    rbtanger: Although Ellen Foster was written with an adult audience in mind and Pictures of Hollis Woods was written for YA, the two books share a common theme as well as being beautifully written. The joy of Hope is central to both.

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Showing 1-5 of 55 (next | show all)
Her mother dead, her father poor , drunk and abusive, her maternal grandma an embittered and mentally ill woman...the ten year old narrator tells of her journey from one home to another...the family she was placed with- and returned from - and her final successful placement with a local woman, from whom she eventually takes a new surname- "I heard they were the Foster family." And the (curiously unknowable) lifelong friend, Starletta - daughter of an impoverished but kindly coloured family, for whom Ellen notices her feelings changing, from the perspective of inculcated white superiority to a true valuation of the girl as an equal.
She's a sparky, intelligent and self reliant child, and it tells a story, but not massively memorable. ( )
  starbox | Nov 16, 2018 |
Kaye Gibbons is not a writer I have read before, but last year I spotted two of her books in a second-hand book shop and took a chance. Ellen Foster; was her first novel and it tells the poignant story of a precocious eleven-year-old. Hers, is an unforgettable voice, and through her eyes we witness a world of broken family, neglect and poverty, as she experiences casual violence and fear, things no child her age should live with.

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he’d be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something’s the matter with my daddy.”

Ellen is the child of a sick mother and a drunk, abusive father. Ellen is around nine as the novel opens, though the story is told from a distance of a couple of years later, when Ellen’s life has changed, and she is living with her ‘new mama’. The family she was born into, live in the rural south, it is somewhere around the late seventies – though I often felt it could have easily been twenty years earlier. There is still a lot of unofficial white/black segregation in the community. Though Ellen’s father has a group of black, drinking buddies, Ellen has been brought up believing she mustn’t stay overnight at her friend Starletta’s house or eat or drink anything while there. Starletta’s family are poor but kind, and it becomes a place where Ellen seeks refuge, a place where she can feel safe.

“I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think. You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.”

Ellen’s mother is fragile, she cannot cope with the world in which she lives, and so one day as Ellen lays resting next to her she overdoses. With her mother dead, Ellen finds it wiser to stay as far away from her father as she can. Deciding she doesn’t want to live with him any longer she packs a bag and calls her Aunt Betsy and invites herself to stay. Betsy is one of Ellen’s mother’s sisters. At the end of a happy weekend with Betsy, it is revealed that Betsy had only expected her niece to stay for the weekend – not for good! Ellen is on her own again, forced to return to her father.

When the school spot bruises on Ellen’s body, she embarks on a series of temporary solutions. First, she stays with one of her school teachers, Julia and her husband Roy. Here Ellen feels cared for although she doesn’t always understand their way of life. Her time with Julia is short – and her grandmother – her ‘mama’s mama’ is awarded custody.

Mama’s Mama is a truly awful woman, mean and desperately cruel – she hates Ellen’s father and takes her hatred out on Ellen in the most dreadful ways. Ellen is tough little cookie, when she is put to work in the cotton fields under the scorching summer sun, she gets on with it, making friends with her fellow workers. When her vile grandmother falls ill, she takes care of her, the best way this poor, almost broken child can.

“She died in spite of me.
I tried to make her keep breathing and she stopped I blew air in her like I should have. She did not live but at least I did not slip into a dream beside her. I just stood by the bed and looked at her dead with her face pleasant now to trick Jesus. I said to 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.
I stood over her hoping she was the last dead person I knew for a while.”

Next to take Ellen in, is Aunt Nadine, her mother’s other sister – who Betsy has been fighting with since the funeral. Life at Nadine’s house is not happy either. Nadine’s daughter Dora is a spoilt, spiteful little madame who instantly makes Ellen feel out of place. On Christmas day things come to a head, and Ellen walks out – heading for the house of the lady with the nice calm, well behaved children who she had spotted at church. She had heard the woman referred to as the Foster woman who will take anyone in. So, Ellen knocks at her door on Christmas day – and is taken in. Ellen has misunderstood the Foster part – assuming it is her new mama’s name she starts calling herself Ellen Foster.

Ellen finds life at her new mama’s house to suit her just right, there’s a pony to ride and a large family who are immediately welcoming. From the way this novel is structured we know from the beginning that Ellen has a new life – a life she is happy in finally. I think it is that knowledge that makes this novel easier to read, as the reader knows that we won’t be left feeling hopeless at the end. In fact, there is a lot that is joyful and life affirming in how Ellen emerges at the end of this slight novel, and I had high hopes for her going forward. She reconnects with her friend Starletta, making the necessary readjustments to her racial attitudes.

The other novel I have by Kaye Gibbons is Sights Unseen – which I believe has a similarly rural setting. Based upon this powerful little novel, I have reason to look forward to it. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | May 28, 2018 |
Suppose the literary spirits of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor needed a place to stay and they settled down in author Kaye Gibbons, mixed things up a little and out came "Ellen Foster". This is a remarkable first novel that will tug at your heart, make you sad and make you chuckle and admire the spunk of a young girl who got a very bad hand dealt to her.

I'd recommend this to anyone who likes southern literature and maybe everyone else too. I'm dropping this onto my favorite books by year list for 1987. I have another book by Kaye Gibbons which I am looking forward to. ( )
  RBeffa | Jan 20, 2018 |
Yet another winner from Kaye Gibbons, I love everything she writes. ( )
  REINADECOPIAYPEGA | Jan 11, 2018 |
Raw and unflinching, this story told through a young girl's eyes will captivate readers. Born to a depressed mother and abusive alcoholic Ellen learns to fend for herself and to depend on the kindness of strangers, especially on the colored family down the road. When Ellen loses her mother she isn't shocked or surprised she just further goes into survival mode, bouncing from one household to the next, trying to find someone willing to care for and love a ten year old. Set in the south during the sixties, this book is sure to generate lively discussion. It's a quick read and Kaye Gibbons does a wonderful job viewing the world through a child's imagination. Witty, charming, and precious. ( )
  ecataldi | Oct 20, 2017 |
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Cast the bantling on the rocks, Suckle him with the she-worlf's teat, Wintered with the hawk and fox, Power and speed be hands and feet. -Inscription to "Self-Reliance" Ralph Waldo Emeron
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When I was little I would think of ways to kill my Daddy.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375703055, Paperback)

Oprah Book Club® Selection, October 1997: Kaye Gibbons is a writer who brings a short story sensibility to her novels. Rather than take advantage of the novel's longer form to paint her visions in broad, sweeping strokes, Gibbons prefers to concentrate on just one corner of the canvas and only a few colors to produce her small masterpieces. In Gibbons's case, her canvas is the American South and her colors are all the shades of gray.

In Ellen Foster, the title character is an 11-year-old orphan who refers to herself as "old Ellen," an appellation that is disturbingly apt. Ellen is an old woman in a child's body; her frail, unhappy mother dies, her abusive father alternately neglects her and makes advances on her, and she is shuttled from one uncaring relative's home to another before she finally takes matters into her own hands and finds herself a place to belong. There is something almost Dickensian about Ellen's tribulations; like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or a host of other literary child heroes, Ellen is at the mercy of predatory adults, with only her own wit and courage--and the occasional kindness of others--to help her through. That she does, in fact, survive her childhood and even rise above it is the book's bittersweet victory.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:31 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Having suffered abuse and misfortune for much of her life, a young child searches for a better life and finally gets a break in the home of a loving woman with several foster children.

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