Ellen Foster

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"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." So begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kay Gibbons's first novel, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Institute of Arts and Letters. Wise, funny, affectionate, and true, Ellen Foster is, as Walker Percy called it, "The real thing. Which is to say, a lovely, sometimes heartwrenching novel. . . . [Ellen Foster] is ...

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Overview

"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." So begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kay Gibbons's first novel, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Institute of Arts and Letters. Wise, funny, affectionate, and true, Ellen Foster is, as Walker Percy called it, "The real thing. Which is to say, a lovely, sometimes heartwrenching novel. . . . [Ellen Foster] is as much a part of the backwoods South as a Faulkner character—and a good deal more endearing."

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caulfield, tougher perhaps, as funny. . . . A breathtaking first novel." —Walker Percy

"A stunning new writer. . . . The life in this novel, the honesty of th0ought and eye and feeling and word! —Eudora Welty

"The story of a redoubtable girl who overcomes adversity with humor, spunk, and determination, Kaye Gibbons's first novel is a work of considerable subtlety and intellectual sophistication. A terrific book." —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

"Filled with lively humor, compasion and integrity . . . Ellen Foster may be the most trustworthy character in recent fiction." —Alice Hoffman, The New York Times Book Review

Alice Hoffman
If one should never trust the person who has had a happy childhood, then Ellen Foster, the 11-year-old heroine of Kaye Gibbons's accomplished first novel, may be the most trustworthy character in recent fiction....In many ways this is an old-fashioned novel about traditional values and inherited prejudices, taking place in a South where too little has changed too slowly....What might have been grim, melodramatic material in the hands of a less talented author is instead filled with lively humor, compassion and intimacy. This short novel focuses on Ellen's strengths rather than her victimization, presenting a memorable heroine who rescues herself. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The appealing, eponymous, 11-year-old orphan heroine of this Southern-focused debut survives appalling situations until she finds safe harbor in a good foster home. "Some readers will find the recital of Ellen's woes mawkishly sentimental,'' PW remarked, "but for others it may be a perfect summer read.'' (May)
Library Journal
Ellen Foster is the often heart-wrenching tale of an 11-year-old girl who loses her dearly loved mother through suicide and is left to coexist with her alcoholic father. "Old Ellen,'' as the protagonist refers to herself, is a tough but tender young soul, determined and wise beyond her years. Initially, she is resourceful enough to ferret out money for necessities, but eventually she becomes fearful for her safety and runs away to live with her art teacher. When a court decides she can no longer remain there, Ellen is briefly shuttled between uncaring relatives but eventually triumphs in finding a "new mamma.'' Gibbons has produced a warm and caring first novel about a backwoods child persevering through hard times to establish a new and satisfying identity. It is written with the freshness of a child but the wisdom of an adult. Kimberly G. Allen, Supreme Court Lib., Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375703058
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/28/1997
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Kaye  Gibbons
Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina and attended Rocky Mount Senior High School, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her first novel, Ellen Foster, was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction of the American Academy and Institute of the Arts and Letters and a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and was recently awarded the PEN/Revson Fellowship for A Cure for Dreams. She is writer-in-residence at the Library of North Carolina State University. She and her husband, Michael, and their three daughters Mary, Leslie and Louise, live in Raleigh.

Biography

In 1987, a novel detailing the hardships and heartbreaks of a tough, witty, and resolute 11-year-old girl from North Carolina found its way into the hearts of readers all over the country. Ellen Foster was the story of its namesake, who had suffered years of tough luck and cruelty until finding her way into the home of a kind foster mother. Now, some nineteen years later, author Kaye Gibbons is finally bestowing the ultimate gift on her fans -- a continuation of Ellen's story.

As The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster begins, Ellen is now fifteen and living in a permanent household with her new adoptive mother. However, Ellen still feels unsettled an incomplete. Due to "the surplus of living" she had "jammed" into the years leading up to this point in her life, Ellen feels as though she is deserving of early admission into Harvard University. However, when this dream does not come to be, she re-embarks on her soul-searching journey, drawing her back to those she left behind in North Carolina.

While it took Gibbons nearly two decades to return to her most-beloved character, she never truly let go of Ellen Foster, even as she was penning bestsellers and critical favorites such as A Cure For Dreams and Charms For the Easy Life. "She is like a fourth child in my house," Gibbons said in an audio interview with Barnes&Noble.com. "Ellen is really like the kid who came to spend the weekend and stayed for twenty years."

Perhaps Gibbons's close association with the little orphan is the result of her own personal connection to the character. She claims that the Ellen Foster books were "emotionally" autobiographical and helped her to come to terms with the most painful experience of her life. When Gibbons was a child, her ailing mother committed suicide -- an event that placed her on the same pathless quest for love and belonging as Ellen. The untimely death of Gibbons's mother provided much of the impetus for her to revisit Ellen in a sequel. "Before I wrote The Life All Around Me," she confides, "I wasn't obsessed by my mother's suicide, but I was angry about it... and it's something that I thought about every few minutes of the day, and I always wondered what my life would have been like had she stayed. She had extremely awful medical problems and had just had open-heart surgery, and back then we didn't know what we know now about the hormonal changes after heart surgery and the depression that's so typical after it. After I wrote The Life All Around Me, I was amazed that I didn't think about it as much as I did, and I found that I'd forgiven her and understood it."

Now that she has set some of her old demons to rest with a novel that Booklist has called "compelling and unique," Gibbons has vowed not to allow another nineteen years to pass before completing the next chapter in Ellen's story. She ensures that Ellen's adventures are just beginning and ultimately intends to tell the tale of her entire life. "I decided to recreate the life of a woman in literature," Gibbons says. "I always liked to have a big job to do... and I thought about how marvelous it would be at the end of my life to have created a free-standing woman; a walking, talking all-but-breathing person on paper." Ambitious as this project may sound, a woman who has faced the challenges that Gibbons has shall surely prove herself to be up to the task.

Good To Know

Some fun facts from our interview with Gibbons:

"I wrote A Virtuous Woman while nursing two babies simultaneously, typing with my arms wrapped around them. I turned in stained pages but never called them to anyone's attention for fear they'd be horrified."

"I got a C on an Ellen Foster paper I rewrote for a daughter's tenth-grade English class."

"Writing serious work one wants to be read and to last isn't like a hobby that can be picked up and put down, it's a lovely obsession and a very demanding joy."

"Getting involved with things that don't matter in life will get in the way of it, as they will with anything, like family and home, that do matter."

"To unwind, I watch movies and do collages with old photographs from flea markets or make jewelry with my daughter, and the best way to clear my mind is to walk around New York, where I write most of the time in a tiny studio apartment with random mice I've named Willard and Ben, though I can't tell any of those guys apart!"

"My writing is powered by Diet Coke, very cold and in a can. If Diet Coke was taken off the market, I'm afraid I'd never write again!"

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    1. Hometown:
      Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 5, 1960
    2. Place of Birth:
      Nash County, North Carolina
    1. Education:
      Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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. When they come in the house I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I
just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking all over.

But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out. I heard how they found him shut up in the house dead and everything. Next thing I know he's in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four.

All I did was wish him dead real hard every now and then. And I can say for a fact that I am better off now than when he was alive.

I live in a clean brick house and mostly I am left to myself. When I start to carry an odor I take a bath and folks tell me how sweet I look.

There is a plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more. I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast, mayonnaise on both sides. And I may fix me another one for lunch.

Two years ago I did not have much of anything. Not that I live in the lap of luxury now but I am proud for the schoolbus to pick me up here every morning. My stylish well-groomed self standing in the front yard with the grass green and the hedge bushes square.

I figure I made out pretty good considering the rest of my family is either dead or crazy.

Every Tuesday a man comes and gets me out of social studies and we go into a room and talk about it all.

Last week he spread out pictures of flat bats for me to comment on. I mostly saw flat bats. 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.

Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning and wore out and sick. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there.

Even my mama's skin looked tired of holding her weak self. She would prop herself up by the refrigerator and watch my daddy go round the table swearing at all who did him wrong. She looked all sad in her face like it was all her fault.

She could not help getting sick but nobody made her marry him. You see when she was my size she had romantic fever I think it is called and since then she has not had a good heart.

She comes home from the hospital sometimes. If I was her I would stay there. All laid up in the air conditioning with folks patting your head and bringing you fruit baskets.

Oh no. She comes in and he lets into her right away. Carrying on. Set up in his E-Z lounger like he is King for a Day. You bring me this or that he might say.

She comes in the door and he asks about supper right off. What does she have planned? he wants to know. Wouldn't he like to know what I myself have planned? She would look at him square in the face but not at his eyes or mouth but at his whole face and the ugliness getting out through the front. On he goes about supper and how come weeds are growed up in the yard.
More like a big mean baby than a grown man.

I got her suitcase in my hand and I carry it to the bedroom. But while I walk I listen to him and to her not saying a word back to him. She stand between his mean highness and the television set looking at him make words at her.

Big wind-up toy of a man. He is just too sorry to talk back to even if he is my daddy. And she is too limp and too sore to get up the breath to push the words out to stop it all. She just stands there and lets him work out his evil on her.

Get in the kitchen and fix me something to eat. I had to cook the whole time you was gone, he tells her.

And that was some lie he made up. Cook for his own self. Ha. If I did not feed us both we had to go into town and get take-out chicken. I myself was looking forward to something fit to eat but I was not about to say anything.

If anybody had asked me what to do I would have told us both to feed on hoop cheese and crackers. Somebody operated on needs to stay in the bed without some husband on their back all the time. But she does not go on to the bedroom but turns right back around and goes to the kitchen. 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.

Nobody yells after anybody to do this or that here.

My new mama lays out the food and we all take a turn to dish it out. Then we eat and have a good time. Toast or biscuits with anything you please. Eggs any style. Corn cut off the cob the same day we eat it. I keep my elbows off the table and wipe my mouth like a lady. Nobody barks, farts, or feeds the dogs under the table here. When everybody is done eating my new mama puts the dishes in a thing, shuts the door, cuts on it, and Wa-La they are clean.

My mama does not say a word about being tired or sore. She did ask who kept everything so clean and he took the credit. I do not know who he thinks he fooled. I knew he lied and my mama did too. She just asked to be saying something.

Mama puts the food out on the table and he wants to know what I am staring at. At you humped over your plate like one of us is about to snatch it from you. You old hog. But I do not say it.

Why don't you eat? he wants to know.

I don't have an appetite, I say back.

Well, you better eat. Your mama looks like this might be her last supper.

He is so sure he's funny that he laughs at his own self.

All the time I look at him and at her and try to figure out why he hates her so bad. When he is not looking I give him the evil eye. And mama looks like she could crawl under the table and cry.

We leave his nasty self at that table and go to bed. She is sore all up through her chest and bruised up the neck. It makes me want to turn my head.

We peel her dress off over the head and slip on something loose to sleep in. I help her get herself laid in the bed and then I slide in beside her. She just turns her head into the pillow.

I will stay here with you. Just for a nap I will stay here with you.

Now at my new mama's I lay up late in the day and watch the rain fall outside. Not one thing is pressing on me to get done here.

I have a bag of candy to eat on. One piece at a time. Make it last. All I got left to do is eat supper and wash myself.

Look around my room. It is so nice.

When I accumulate enough money I plan to get some colored glass things that you dangle from the window glass. I lay here and feature how that would look. I already got pink checkerboard curtains with dingleballs around the edges. My new mama sewed them for me. She also sewed matching sacks that I cram my pillows into every morning.

Everything matches. It is all so neat and clean.

When I finish laying here with these malted milk balls I will smooth the covers down and generally clean up after myself. Maybe then I will play with the other people. But I might just lay here until the chicken frying smells ready to eat.

I do not know if she hears him go out the back door. She is still enough to be asleep. He goes off in the truck like he has some business to tend to. And you know and I know he's gone to get himself something to drink. Then he brings it into this house like he is Santa Claus. He sets his package beside his chair and then eases his lazy self into place. Yelling at somebody, meaning myself, to turn on the television set. I could chew nails and spit tacks.

The yelling makes my mama jump and if she was asleep she is awake now. Grits her teeth every time he calls out damn this or that. The more he drinks the less sense he makes.

By the time the dog races come on he's stretched out on the bathroom floor and can't get up. I
know I need to go in there and poke him. Same thing every Saturday. This week in particular she does not need to find some daddy hog rooted all up against the toilet stool.

I get up and go in there and tell him to get up that folks got to come in here and do their business.
He can go lay in the truck.

He just grunts and grabs at my ankle and misses.

Get on up I say again to him. You got to be firm when he is like this. He'd lay there and rot if I let him so I nudge him with my foot. I will not touch my hands to him. Makes me want to heave my own self seeing him pull himself up on the sink. He zig-zags out through the living room and I
guess he makes it out the door. I don't hear him fall down the steps.

And where did she come from? Standing in the door looking at it all.

Get back in bed, I say to mama.

Mama's easy to tend to. She goes back in the bedroom. Not a bit of trouble. Just stiff and hard to move around. I get her back in the bed and tell her he's outside for the night. She starts to whimper and I say it is no reason to cry. But she will wear herself out crying.

I ought to lock him out.

A grown man that should be bringing her food to nibble on and books to look at. No but he is taking care of his own self tonight. Just like she is not sick or kin to him.

A storm is coming up. And I will lay here with my mama until I see her chest rise up and sink down regular. Deep and regular and far away from the man in the truck.

I can smell the storm and see the air thick with the rain coming.

He will sleep through the thunder and rain. And oh how I have my rage and desire for the lightning to come and strike a vengeance on him. But I do not control the clouds or the thunder.

And the way the Lord moves in his business.

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Table of Contents

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

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. When they come in the house I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking all over.

But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out. I heard how they found him shut up in the house dead and everything. Next thing I know he's in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four.

All I did was wish him dead real hard every now and then. And I can say for a fact that I am better off now than when he was alive.

I live in a clean brick house and mostly I am left to myself. When I start to carry an odor I take a bath and folks tell me how sweet I look.

There is a plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more. I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast, mayonnaise on both sides. And I may fix me another one for lunch.

Two years ago I did not have much of anything. Not that I live in the lap of luxury now but I am proud for the schoolbus to pick me up here every morning. My stylish well-groomed self standing in the front yard with the grass green and the hedge bushes square.

I figure I made out pretty good considering the rest of my family is either dead or crazy.

Every Tuesday a man comes and gets me out of social studies and we go into a room and talk about it all.

Last week he spread out pictures of flat bats for me to comment on. I mostly saw flat bats. 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.

Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning and wore out and sick. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there.

Even my mama's skin looked tired of holding her weak self. She would prop herself up by the refrigerator and watch my daddy go round the table swearing at all who did him wrong. She looked all sad in her face like it was all her fault.

She could not help getting sick but nobody made her marry him. You see when she was my size she had romantic fever I think it is called and since then she has not had a good heart.

She comes home from the hospital sometimes. If I was her I would stay there. All laid up in the air conditioning with folks patting your head and bringing you fruit baskets.

Oh no. She comes in and he lets into her right away. Carrying on. Set up in his E-Z lounger like he is King for a Day. You bring me this or that he might say.

She comes in the door and he asks about supper right off. What does she have planned? he wants to know. Wouldn't he like to know what I myself have planned? She would look at him square in the face but not at his eyes or mouth but at his whole face and the ugliness getting out through the front. On he goes about supper and how come weeds are growed up in the yard. More like a big mean baby than a grown man.

I got her suitcase in my hand and I carry it to the bedroom. But while I walk I listen to him and to her not saying a word back to him. She stand between his mean highness and the television set looking at him make words at her.

Big wind-up toy of a man. He is just too sorry to talk back to even if he is my daddy. And she is too limp and too sore to get up the breath to push the words out to stop it all. She just stands there and lets him work out his evil on her.

Get in the kitchen and fix me something to eat. I had to cook the whole time you was gone, he tells her.

And that was some lie he made up. Cook for his own self. Ha. If I did not feed us both we had to go into town and get take-out chicken. I myself was looking forward to something fit to eat but I was not about to say anything.

If anybody had asked me what to do I would have told us both to feed on hoop cheese and crackers. Somebody operated on needs to stay in the bed without some husband on their back all the time. But she does not go on to the bedroom but turns right back around and goes to the kitchen. 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.

Nobody yells after anybody to do this or that here.

My new mama lays out the food and we all take a turn to dish it out. Then we eat and have a good time. Toast or biscuits with anything you please. Eggs any style. Corn cut off the cob the same day we eat it. I keep my elbows off the table and wipe my mouth like a lady. Nobody barks, farts, or feeds the dogs under the table here. When everybody is done eating my new mama puts the dishes in a thing, shuts the door, cuts on it, and Wa-La they are clean.

My mama does not say a word about being tired or sore. She did ask who kept everything so clean and he took the credit. I do not know who he thinks he fooled. I knew he lied and my mama did too. She just asked to be saying something.

Mama puts the food out on the table and he wants to know what I am staring at. At you humped over your plate like one of us is about to snatch it from you. You old hog. But I do not say it.

Why don't you eat? he wants to know.

I don't have an appetite, I say back.

Well, you better eat. Your mama looks like this might be her last supper.

He is so sure he's funny that he laughs at his own self.

All the time I look at him and at her and try to figure out why he hates her so bad. When he is not looking I give him the evil eye. And mama looks like she could crawl under the table and cry.

We leave his nasty self at that table and go to bed. She is sore all up through her chest and bruised up the neck. It makes me want to turn my head.

We peel her dress off over the head and slip on something loose to sleep in. I help her get herself laid in the bed and then I slide in beside her. She just turns her head into the pillow.

I will stay here with you. Just for a nap I will stay here with you.

Now at my new mama's I lay up late in the day and watch the rain fall outside. Not one thing is pressing on me to get done here.

I have a bag of candy to eat on. One piece at a time. Make it last. All I got left to do is eat supper and wash myself.

Look around my room. It is so nice.

When I accumulate enough money I plan to get some colored glass things that you dangle from the window glass. I lay here and feature how that would look. I already got pink checkerboard curtains with dingleballs around the edges. My new mama sewed them for me. She also sewed matching sacks that I cram my pillows into every morning.

Everything matches. It is all so neat and clean.

When I finish laying here with these malted milk balls I will smooth the covers down and generally clean up after myself. Maybe then I will play with the other people. But I might just lay here until the chicken frying smells ready to eat.

I do not know if she hears him go out the back door. She is still enough to be asleep. He goes off in the truck like he has some business to tend to. And you know and I know he's gone to get himself something to drink. Then he brings it into this house like he is Santa Claus. He sets his package beside his chair and then eases his lazy self into place. Yelling at somebody, meaning myself, to turn on the television set. I could chew nails and spit tacks.

The yelling makes my mama jump and if she was asleep she is awake now. Grits her teeth every time he calls out damn this or that. The more he drinks the less sense he makes.

By the time the dog races come on he's stretched out on the bathroom floor and can't get up. I know I need to go in there and poke him. Same thing every Saturday. This week in particular she does not need to find some daddy hog rooted all up against the toilet stool.

I get up and go in there and tell him to get up that folks got to come in here and do their business. He can go lay in the truck.

He just grunts and grabs at my ankle and misses.

Get on up I say again to him. You got to be firm when he is like this. He'd lay there and rot if I let him so I nudge him with my foot. I will not touch my hands to him. Makes me want to heave my own self seeing him pull himself up on the sink. He zig-zags out through the living room and I guess he makes it out the door. I don't hear him fall down the steps.

And where did she come from? Standing in the door looking at it all.

Get back in bed, I say to mama.

Mama's easy to tend to. She goes back in the bedroom. Not a bit of trouble. Just stiff and hard to move around. I get her back in the bed and tell her he's outside for the night. She starts to whimper and I say it is no reason to cry. But she will wear herself out crying.

I ought to lock him out.

A grown man that should be bringing her food to nibble on and books to look at. No but he is taking care of his own self tonight. Just like she is not sick or kin to him.

A storm is coming up. And I will lay here with my mama until I see her chest rise up and sink down regular. Deep and regular and far away from the man in the truck.

I can smell the storm and see the air thick with the rain coming.

He will sleep through the thunder and rain. And oh how I have my rage and desire for the lightning to come and strike a vengeance on him. But I do not control the clouds or the thunder.

And the way the Lord moves in his business.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Ellen is searching for a home. How does she define home at the beginning of the novel, and how does she refine her definition during the course of the narrative? What examples of family life and of parenthood has she had to guide her? How do the various parents she observes measure up? What message does Ellen receive during the course of the book about parents and parenthood? Is Gibbons's point that, in the end, family members are unreliable? That one can rely on no one but oneself?

2. Ellen is a person who is inclined to make lists; she is very concerned with order. What attempts does she make to introduce order into her own life? What is the source of this need for order and what light does it shed on Ellen's personality? How does this character trait relate to Ellen's instinct for survival? How does the theme of control and personal responsibility come up in relation to the novel's other characters? How does it relate to the deaths of Ellen's mother and grandmother?

3. Why have none of the concerned adults in Ellen's life—her teachers, Starletta's parents, Julia and Roy, Mavis—been able to rescue her from the dreadful and dangerous life she leads within her own family? How does this failure reflect upon the nature of Ellen's society? What is it about the life even of a small and interconnected community that keeps people from being able to help a desperate child? Is the legal system at fault? The social one?

4. "People say they do not try to be white" [p. 29], Ellen says about Starletta's parents. What does this tell us about them and about the society they live in? What does Ellen's initial description of Starletta's home reveal about Ellen herself? What details in her narrative expose her assumptions about black people? By extension, what do they show about her own vision of herself and her family? How do these assumptions change, and what causes them to do so? How does Ellen's observation of Mavis and her family contribute to her changing attitudes? Ellen's grandmother said she would learn something from picking cotton. What, in fact, does she learn?

5. "Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway," Ellen reflects. "But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep 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" [p. 126]. What discovery has Ellen made here? Why is Starletta's weekend visit so significant to Ellen? Do you think the author is saying that Ellen is now a person without prejudice?

6. The South's violent history of slavery, war, and racial hatred is the unstated background for this story. How does Gibbons make us aware of its silent presence? To what degree is Ellen herself aware of it? Is the contemporary black experience as she observes it still based upon the fact of slavery, paid or unpaid? What is Ellen's way of personally coping with this tragic history?

7. The judge who awarded Ellen's custody to her grandmother expresses the common idea that a child should be with her own family, but Ellen objects. "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 a crumbly old brick?" [p. 56] she asks herself. Does Gibbons imply that a child's being with its biological family is not, after all, that important? Which is more important, the family you choose or the family you are born into?

8. Ellen does not believe in the church's version of God. "Chickenshit is what I would say" [p. 96], she says of Nadine's version of Heaven. But she does have her own version of God, and speaks to him on occasion. What sort of relationship does she have with the deity? What kind of deity is he—fair or strict? Accessible or inaccessible? Forgiving or unforgiving? How much of his character derives from the traditional God about whom the church has taught her?

9. The society around Ellen—particularly her mother's family—tries to make her feel guilty about many of her actions, even, in the case of her mama's mama, about her very existence. To what degree does Ellen share the feeling that she herself is guilty? Are the acts she feels guilty about the same ones she is blamed for by the people around her? She seems deeply concerned with the idea of personal atonement. What are her feelings about atonement and how does she herself atone by the end of the novel?

10. Money and the good and bad effects of having it or not having it are a recurring issue in Ellen Foster. Ellen baldly states, "All I really cared about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle" [p. 61]. In the book, economic status is often integrated into character descriptions or included in the rationale for characters' actions. How does Gibbons depict money as a force in people's lives? Is money, in and of itself, deemed to be either good or evil?

11. In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons has chosen not to use quotation marks for dialogue. Look at passages like the ones on pages 32; 47 and 48; and 1

12. How do you know who is speaking? Are we listening only to Ellen, or listening in on a private conversation? How does the author's decision not to use quotation marks affect the reading experience?

12. "Dora, let me tell you a thing or two," Ellen says. "There is no Santa Claus" [p. 107]. Yet, on Christmas Eve, Ellen longs to hear something landing on the roof. Having been deprived of her own childhood illusions, she hates Dora for retaining all of hers, but in spite of Starletta's happy Christmas and her toys, Ellen does not hate Starletta. What is the difference between Dora's and Starletta's innocent belief in Santa Claus? What does the Christmas scene as a whole say about the characters of Dora and Nadine? What does it say about family, childhood, innocence, and celebration?

13. What does Ellen's encounter with the school psychiatrist tell us about Ellen? What does it tell us about the psychiatrist and the kind of therapy he practices? How effective is the therapy as a tool for dealing with children like Ellen? Is it the psychiatrist's personal defects that keep it from working with Ellen, or would it be equally ineffective no matter who the practitioner was?

14. Two of the primary metaphors that recur throughout the novel are the magician and the microscope. What do you think each symbolizes? Who is the magician? How do his "appearances" after the deaths of Ellen's mother and father affect her internalization of the events? Why does the novel's diction change so markedly during these passages?

15. Why has Gibbons chosen the quotation from Emerson's Self-Reliance to begin her novel? How does the quotation relate to the text, to the character of Ellen, and to Gibbons's stated and implied themes? What has the novel itself to say about the attribute of self-reliance? Do you find that the novel's focus upon that quality places it within a particular tradition of American literature? What other American novels does Ellen Foster echo? If you have read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, can you compare the two novels? Would it be fair to say that Ellen Foster is a female version of that very masculine story? How does the concept of "self-reliance" mold both books?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 135 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(37)

4 Star

(63)

3 Star

(21)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(8)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 135 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 14, 2012

    Please do yourself a favor and read this absolutely wonderful bo

    Please do yourself a favor and read this absolutely wonderful book! You'll be captivated by this special little girl. All of Ms. Gibbons's books are just as good! Love them all.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Ellen Foster ~school project

    This story was surprising. A little girl who had to learn how to care of herself at the age of 8, which is what most people learn when they are in their 20's. She is an inspirational character. The obstacles she faces seem unreal and she couldnt find anyone that cared about her until she meets her foster mom. The story makes you think that this could possibly happen to you or someone close to you. It really makes you relate this story with your own life. Kaye Gibbons really makes you think with this novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2013

    KITCHEN

    Kithen

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2013

    Hardach By Kiestin Jay Ellen foster   Kayne Gibbons 126pp. Vint

    Hardach
    By Kiestin Jay
    Ellen foster 
     Kayne Gibbons
    126pp. Vintage Books,$12.15(Teen Fiction)
    Teenager are the most difficult age group to get to read a book. When I first started reading this book at first I thought it was very confusing i it didn’t really give you a introduction.so I didn’t really understand it at first but as I started reading it more I understood it more.
    A little gir,l just eleven years old is living in a house where she has to watch her father treat her mother like crap every day. He is so mean to her mother he threatens, yells and throws stuff at her. Ellen hates to see her mother treated like that but there’s nothing she can do.
     Ellen foster is the main character in the book at the moment. She starts off by telling this story how much she hates her father and wants to kill him. She now has new parents and she compares her old parents to her new parents, how her old father was a no good drunk for nothing and how her  treated her and her mother like crap.She can’t stand how her father throws stuff at her mother. Ellen explains how much pain her father causes her and her mother. In chapter 3 Ellen talks about her wanting to ride a pony and her mother’s funeral. She gets annoyed when she aunt keeps asking her how she doing and has her put on a checked red dress that she hates. Ellen has to ride between her cousin Dora and doesn’t like riding between people because she can’t get out and she needs air plus Dora wets her pants.
    Her and the horse just relax and watch the tress move back and forth. She gets home and decades that he will go to school and wear something of her mothers sence her mother wasn’t that much bigger then her. When at school she goes to the library and a teacher follows her,and,wants to know how her mom died even she They drove to thru the colored town to get to the church .She falls in love with a angle water foundation in the white town but she doesn’t steal it.nobody in her family likes her father,during the service her grandmother calls her father a bastard.she doesn’t want to see her mother being put in to the ground.she goes to see the piny and they ride out in the woods and sence she forgot a book knows how she did she leaves the library and doesn’t answer.Ellen and scarletta walk home.in the winter time and the heat has been cut off scarlet  fathers takes them to the store to get them Coates. She joins the girl scouts. Her two uncles leave money in the mailboxes think nobody  is home, she gets out the money she needs and gives the rest to her father. She is with the girl scouts until Christmases because she`s tired of going to the meetings. For Christmas she went to starlet’s house, she noticed that they have to use the bathroom outside but when its cold out side the use a pot in the corner.starletta likes to break her crayons but ellen can’t stand it so she takes them home sometimes and tapes them back together. And she tells her that she need to wash before they can play together.Ellen gives them a sweater and it brightens up he place,they are very greatful.When back home her daddy and some colored men ransacked her kitchen looking for food that’s not frozen

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 1, 2012

    BEST BOOK I'VE EVER READ!

    This book is great. Ellen Foster is a young girl who experiences tragedy and loss throughout her whole life. She Is a brave 11 year old who lives in the south. Kaye Gibbons does a great job at keeping youu hooked on the book you will not want to put it down!! This is a Must read book!!!

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  • Posted October 1, 2012

    Highly Recommended- you must check it out!!

    This Book, Ellen Foster, is an incredible book. It is a very heartbreaking story which is very hard to put down. This book is good for any age. Athough for some, it may not be relatable, the details and the way the story is written, makes you feel as if you are witnessing it in real life. MUST READ!!

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  • Posted September 28, 2012

    VERY GOOD! EASY READ! MUST READ!

    I started this book with poor expectations, and Kaye Gibbons delivered in a very positive way.. Some parts were confusing, but soon got used to them.This book is about a young girl who has very sick life. her father is abusive and she harmed secually, phsically and emotinally througout her life. Despite her trials, the brave girl never gave up the search for love. She found it but kind people like a black friend named Starletta, a hippie couple, and also a foster family. She kept her grit and was more concerned about others than herself. Many of the events are disturbing, hoever they are very interesting.This book is uplifting. I reccomend it to almost anyone, from Highschoolers to adults.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2012

    Wow

    This is a really good book but you jave to concentrate on what it says. It will allmost feel like you are living her life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2009

    a captivating story?

    This book was interesting but also at the same time in certain areas it did not interest me at all. It didn't use quotation marks or commas, it didn't use any punctuation besides periods. It was really hard to tell when people were actually talking or if Ellen Foster was just thinking this as she went. Some of the things in the book were interesting though, like how she fancied up her grandmother, her mamas mama, as she did in a situation like that. If you could find one thing you liked about the book and someone else who possibly liked either something different or the same part then you could really get a conversation going. I don't think i would've read it if i hadn't have had to do it for a project in a class.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 30, 2009

    Good character, but sad story!

    I thought it was very well written, the author really makes you feel bad, and sometimes good, for the character. However, it is VERY sad. We had to read this for school, and I'm scared for one of my friends who will eventually have to read it because it is so sad and similar to his life. I will warn you that this is a very sad book with a decently happy ending, but not a really happy ending. It is short, sad, and it really draws you in!

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  • Posted March 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    touching

    This book is very touching. You can't help but root for Ellen and feel her angst and pain. It is a story that will make you sad to the core for the truth in it and yet root for a little girl that represents so much that is real in the world. A great book worth reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2008

    Loved it

    Great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster: A Novel

    If you like to reading books that have dram, friendship, problems, and a happy ending you are going to like this book. You would like Ellen Foster because it has all of these exciting things and more. The drama and mystery in this book begins in the beginning when she says her dad ides. The friendship she has with her best friend. The sacrifices she has to make to keep this friendship. Ellen the main character has many problems in the whole book but, at the end something happens. This also a challenging book to understand because the setting changes a lot. The setting in this book has many metaphors. For example there is a time she is in the garden with her art teacher. In that garden there are weeds and plants. Ellen realizes that weeds represent evil while plants represent good. There are many more in the book. Has Ellen struggles to find a new life. Ellen wants a new life. Ellen wants a new mom, why? Is all part of the reading. Has I mention of you like a happy ending book this is your book, so go and buy a copy so you know what I am talking about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster: A Novel

    ¿Ellen Foster¿ by Kaye Gibbons is a great book to read if you like realistic type books .Especially because of the problems Ellen foster encounters when she is young with her father that has drinking problems and her mother dieing .I had a marvelous time reading this book during my summer break because of the intensity of vocabulary was understandable for me and because it is not that long to read. People should read this book because even though the book has some sad parts it also has funny parts that will make you laugh. So I am giving this book a five because it is easy to read and its enjoyable .so I hope you enjoy it too

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster is a good book.

    I read the book Ellen Foster by Kay Gibbons. It is fiction book. It was really interesting I really enjoy reading the book. I also liked it because it teaches young teenagers about problems. After her mother, Ellen had to work and pay bills in her house because his dad did not do them. His dad lived drunk and mad and after a while he died to. So she had to move to her grand mother's house. Every time she move she did not get treat right. Ellen lived trough some rough times in her childhood. After reading this book you can realize that you are not the only one who has had problems in life. The book in general was kind of confusing, because the author changes period. As you read the book everything will just make sense.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster: A Novel

    I have to say that Ellen foster is one of the best novels that I have read by far. Ellen had been though so many hardships in her life and yet she was still able to deal with it. It also shows that she was able to deal with moving from family to family. This is also a very good book because Ellen Foster deals with so much death in her life, and she still tries to live a normal life. I also believe that this is one of the best novels because it shows that no matter what life may throw at you, you should always keep moving forward and not dwell In the past.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    A Must-Read Book!!!

    Ellen Foster is a book that tells a story about a young girl that goes through a lot of misfortune in her childhood. Ellen is surrounded by death and cannot find a rightful home so she can escape from the sadness that follows her. In the end, after rowing stronger mentally, she finds hope to a brighter future. Reading this book made me remember many childhood memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. The way Ellen tells you about her childhood really helps you understand how she feels, and you can connect to her right away. You see the story in your mind as she tells it to you as if her childhood would unfold in your ears and your mind. The people that surround Ellen will surely remind you of the people that surround you every day. You might consider Starletta, Ellen¿s best friend, to be a lot like your best friend in real life. Although there are good people like Starletta in Ellen¿s life, she is also surrounded by people like her aunt and cousin, who are not so nice and are not as perfect as they seem. Any reader can relate anyone that is in their lives with any character in this book. I love to read books that I can relate to my past, especially my childhood. Although I love soccer and I always try to find books about the sport I love, Ellen Foster has nothing to do with sports. Even so, I loved reading this book because it helped me remember many memories from my childhood, and although I did not go through as much misfortune as Ellen did, I could relate to some of the things about her life. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to remember memories from their past. This book will show what bad situations other people go through their childhood it is a shocking eye-opener. ¿When I was little I would think of ways to kill my Daddy¿ That line is the first sentence you will see that will unfold a sad yet interesting story of an unfortunate childhood for a young girl, Ellen Foster. Ellen will capture your attention, and automatically once you know her story, you will feel attached to her and will feel sympathy for her. This is a must read realistic fiction book, but the series of unfortunate events that Kaye Gibbons, the author of the book, makes Ellen go through will make you believe this story is true.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Great Summer Book

    The book Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons was about a girl who loses her mother and was forced to live with her abusive father. She then moved with her grandmother who disliked her because of her father. Her grandmother pasted away and she moved with her aunt and cousin. Ellen then thought it was time for her to find a loving family. Ellen decided to move with the family from church because she saw how loving they were. The book was good and had a lot of suspense in it. If you like realistic fiction, you would love it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster: A Novel

    Are you looking for a book that really emphasizes the true meaning of family? Or have you ever wondered if you take everyday things like siblings for granted? Ellen Foster is the book for you! I recommend this novel 100%. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons is a story about a young girl who experiences harsh troubles in her family and can¿t really call her residence a true home. Ellen loses both of her parents and is shipped off to her grandmother¿s who isn¿t so pleasant! She takes some other few stops at her other relatives and close friends. In all of those she expects to find a ¿Happily Ever After Story¿ but ends up full of hopelessness and despair! At this rate will she ever know what a true family is like? Is the fact that she has lack of care going to drive her to have a mind and spirit of hate?? Call me old fashion but I truly believe that there is a little bit of Ellen Foster in everyone whether it is her humorous, rebellious, or even her heart warming side she is extraordinary! I give this book five stars and guarantee that it is a ¿must have¿ book! Even though I did not expect this Ellen Foster has dug a memorable spot in my brain and I¿m pretty sure that it will affect many people who read it as well!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2007

    Ellen Foster: A Novel

    Ellen Foster is a heart warming story that you do not want to miss out on. It is a book by Kaye Gibbons, and tells a life story of a young girl who suffers from a suicidal mother, mental and sexual abusive father, and temporary homes to live in. Ellen has always longed for a sincere family that will care and love for her, her whole entire life, but usually jumps and stumbles over obstacles to get there. She is frozen in one spot when her art teacher moves, grandmother dies, and a kick to the curb by her Aunt Betsey and Cousin Dora on Christmas Day. Will anyone ever accept her, does anyone still care? She learns to fight for herself out there, but will she ever get what she wants? If you want to know the answer to these questions, then read this inspirational novel because it could help you become way more appreciative of your life. I being a person, who enjoys biographies, recommend Ellen Foster, because it teaches you how to visualize and compare other¿s life to yours. This book is a motivation to all, and will definitely leave you wanting more and satisfied. If you like novels, then you will be in love with Ellen Foster.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 135 Customer Reviews

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