Becoming Ellen

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by Shari Shattuck



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399167621
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2015
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,332,105
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Shari Shattuck, novelist and actress, is the author of Invisible Ellen, and has appeared in more than two hundred stage, film, and TV productions. Shattuck lives with her husband and their two daughters in California.

Read an Excerpt

Ellen Homes was feeling jaunty, which was interesting because until recently she’d never found any use for the word jaunty. Sure, she’d read it, but with her particular brand of detached living, which excluded most conversations—or human interaction if at all possible—she’d never had a chance to try it out.  Jaunty, Ellen decided, felt like a sunny day with a thrilling breeze, though in truth it was dark, only a couple of hours before dawn.  She looked out the window of the bus at the deserted, gray, early a.m. sidewalks and  suppressed a smile.
            Not that anyone would see the fleeting expression. It wasn’t difficult to fall naturally into her old state of invisibility, not for someone with as much practice as herself. For over twenty years Ellen had developed the knack of being absent. It had begun simply, with seeking shadows and silence because the alternative was notice, which had never been a good thing for Ellen. Concentrating hard on withdrawing from the physical world, she would will herself to not be a part of it. Her diligence coupled with the fact that nobody in her life had ever wanted to see her had finally, and happily, resulted in the ability to virtually move though life invisibly.
            At least it had until she’d run into Temerity—or, to be more accurate—until the blind girl had run into her. Without vision, Temerity had ‘seen’ Ellen in a way that Ellen was unprepared for, a way that lacked the judgment of physical appearance because for Temerity appearance had no meaning.
            The bus shushed and roared in its bizarre syncopated way as it followed its familiar route. There was another word that Ellen had learned from Temerity—who was a musician—syncopate. “Oh, it means that the back beat, the weaker rhythm, changes and becomes stronger than the primary beat,” the violinist had explained when Ellen asked.
            Syncopate, the weak becoming stronger. Ellen liked that. She wasn’t sure why exactly. It might have been the way the word felt as it came in out of her mouth with a rhythm of its own in three short, distinctive bursts. Sync-o-pate. But she suspected the more likely reason was that she just loved words. She had spent so much of her childhood hidden in closets and attics with only the characters of books to keep her company, that vocabulary and phrases had become her friends.
            But Ellen was the most fascinated by honest human interaction. Observing and noting those exchanges had tethered her to the world, but loosely, anchoring her at a safe distance.  To her, strangers weren’t just curiosities to Ellen, they were riveting. Ellen studied their minute behaviors and recorded their exchanges with each other in her lined notebooks. Life’s little snapshots, she called them. Turning from the window, she directed her attention to the other passengers and took out her notebook.
            Almost directly across from Ellen, a woman and a child were slumped in their seats. They had the exhausted, malnourished look that Ellen recognized from her own neglected childhood.  The girl was playing with a small plastic toy, but she looked up at the advertisements and pointed to an elaborate doll.  Her mother glanced up and then shook her head wearily. The girl pleaded, clinging to her mother’s arm, until her mother shoved her and told her to stop being stupid.
            Frowning, Ellen wrote the exchange down in her notebook.  But then she noticed something else. The mother’s tired gaze shifted again and again to the ad, and her own eyes filled with tears, which she wiped away angrily and then kissed the top of the girl’s head, and Ellen wrote, “Mother feels badly.”  
            As the bus pulled up to the next stop the doors opened and a very large white man, ruddy, and so big that he almost filled the aisle, lumbered up the steps where he stood aggressively scanning the other riders.  Ellen slipped further down in her seat, and the man’s erratic, drug-altered gaze slid past her without so much as a pause—as usual. He rubbed his fingers against his thumbs rapidly and licked his lips. Ellen could see that he was extremely unstable, either mentally ill or under the influence of some strong drug. A young thin black man wearing jeans and a zipped leather jacket  slipped around him and took a seat in the back.
            The threatening stranger swayed slightly as the bus pulled away. Then he leaned down until his face was inches from an elderly passenger’s. He hissed, “Hey geezer, give me a dollar.”
            The senior whimpered with fear and shook his head. “I don’t have any money. Please leave me alone.”
            Ellen checked to see what the driver would do. She could see him watching furtively in the huge rear view mirror, but he maintained his neutrality.
            In the center of the slightly raised row of seats along the back of the bus, Ellen noticed the young man in the leather jacket watching the bully with a blank face. It was the lack of expression that was notable—the absence of fear.
            “What are you looking at?” the large man shouted down the bus at him.
            “Nothing,” the man in the leather jacket responded, . “Less than nothing.”
            Ellen decided she liked him.
            The bully started toward him. “You want some of this?” He pounded his own chest with his fists.
            “No,” the other responded lazily, suppressing a yawn. “I don’t want none of that.”
            The driver finally spoke up. “Sir, I need you to take a seat,” he called out. 
            For a few seconds—Ellen counted to 12 slowly—nothing happened. The drug-amped man’s eyes shifted right and left several times. It appeared he was trying to digest this information, and there was clearly a glitch in the processing. Then, he took another step toward the back.
            “Sit down sir!” The driver called out with more force.
            With surprising speed, the big man spun and ran at the driver with an ape-like roar, his arms outstretched, fingers curled into claws.
            The driver saw him coming and slammed on the brakes, Ellen and the other passengers were flung forward, Ellen only managed to stop her face from hitting the seat in front of her because she had already had her hands braced up against it. The young man from the back flew forward, but landed on his feet at a run and kept running toward the attacker who had his hands around the driver’s neck. The bus went into a slide.
            The bus’s wheels hit the curb as the vehicle flipped and landed on its side. Ellen took the impact of the window on her right shoulder.  She felt a hard thump as something landed on her left hip but everything was a mess of sounds and motion. It was hard to separate the screaming from the screech of metal on concrete and the smashing of glass from the whining of the bus’s engine.
            The bus rocked twice, and then found its sideways balance. Ellen raised her head and looked around.
            The man in the leather jacket had grabbed the back of the emergency seats on the left and was dangling a couple of feet over the facing seats. As she watched, he let himself drop, and moved immediately to the attacker who was lying in a heap on the ground. She watched him seize the man’s arms, twist them behind him and produce handcuffs. The bus driver dangled by his seatbelt, blood dripping from his forehead.
            Ellen became aware that something was digging into her side. Twisting awkwardly, she looked down.  The little girl who had been sitting across from her was lying on top of Ellen, her mouth open in silent shock. Well, Ellen thought philosophically, at least she landed on something soft.
            “Are you okay?” Ellen asked as gently as she could. Speaking to children under any circumstances was alien to Ellen, and this wasn’t just any circumstance. The girl stared at Ellen as if she was surprised to find that there was someone underneath her. Trying to avoid the glass shards around them, Ellen worked her fanny onto what had been the wall of the bus below the window, the glass of which was now replaced by exposed cement. Putting one arm around the girl’s tiny waist, she shifted her so as not sit on her, which, Ellen was sure, would crush the little fledgling. “Are you…uh…okay?” Ellen repeated.
            The little girl looked into Ellen’s eyes, said, “I think so,” in a mewing voice and then threw herself against Ellen.  Ellen’s whole body went rigid, but she resisted the instinct to shove her away and sat still, patting the child’s back with an open palm.
            Where was her mom? But before she could look, Ellen smelled something that disturbed her more than the moans and cries that were oozing up around her…smoke.
            “All right then,” she said to the little girl. “We need to get out. Come on.” The child didn’t so much as blink. Ellen tried to think of some way to motivate her. From the depth of her past she remembered something someone had said to her when she was entering yet another unwelcoming foster home, it hadn’t made the home any better, but it had helped Ellen walk through the door. So she said it now, “Be brave. Okay?” She got to her feet and pulled the girl up. The child wrapped her arms around Ellen’s thigh, but she moved with Ellen as they made their way toward the window, now above them, with the words “Emergency Exit” in gleaming red.
            But glancing back,  Ellen saw that the man in hand cuffs had rocked himself onto his knees, and his crazed eyes were fixed with hard, insane hatred on the man in the leather jacket who was trying to free the driver.
            “Wait here, just one second, I’ll be back.” Ellen said, unwinding the girl’s arms from her leg. The girl allowed it, but watched Ellen’s face with dazed anxiety.
            Halfway to the front, Ellen was stopped by the sight of something wedged between two seats. It was the girl’s mother, completely still with her face twisted strangely against her chest. Beyond her, the drug-addled bully growled and planted one foot in preparation to stand.
            Without even thinking, Ellen put one foot on his chest and shoved hard. He went over backwards, his weight pinning his arms underneath him. Then Ellen then took up a position beside the man struggling to release the driver’s seatbelt. He looked startled at her sudden appearance but he smiled, a little desperately. Bracing herself on the center divider, Ellen reached both hands up over her head and pushed up on the driver’s hip with all her might. “Okay,” she forced out. “Now.”
            With the weight somewhat eased, they were able to unfasten the seat belt then break the driver’s fall.
            “Okay, I’ve got him, you get out!” the man in the jacket commanded.
            When Ellen reached the emergency exit, the little girl attached herself to her again. The window was open and a man was reaching down.
            “Hurry!”  he told Ellen as she lifted the small girl, who barely weighed more than her obese cat, up and through the exit. Then it was Ellen’s turn, though she was not so eager to trust her considerable weight to other arms.
            But she had no choice. So she allowed herself to be hoisted up until she flopped out onto the side of the bus and then was helped to the street before scuttling out of the way.
            She was sitting on the curb panting when someone put the little girl in her lap. “Here’s your mommy,” the man said, patting the child’s head.
            Ellen opened her mouth to say, “She’s not my…” and then she thought of the real mother still inside the bus, the unnatural angle of her neck, and she said nothing.
            With a siren scream of relief, the first emergency vehicle pulled up, scattering good Samarians and spectators alike.
            Suddenly the soft brown eyes of the young man appeared in front of hers. “You guys doing okay?” As he leaned down and his jacket fell open, Ellen saw something shiny clipped to his belt over his faded black jeans and white t-shirt. A badge.
            Unused to being seen much less spoken to, Ellen just nodded and kept her gaze down.
            “Thanks for your help.” Ellen felt pressure on her shoulder and looked at it. Her whole body seemed to pulse and writhe, seeking escape, but he turned and called out to the paramedics, “Let’s get someone to take a look at these two.”
            “No,” Ellen objected, her heartbeat fluttering up from its already accelerated pace into a flurry of constant thrumming. “No, please. I’m fine.”
            But as she said it, she saw a figure strapped tightly to a backboard being lifted down from the bus . Ellen reached out and pulled the birdlike body against her, instinctively trying to prevent the child from seeing.
            But when she looked down she saw that the girl had already registered the image that Ellen knew she could never erase of her mother--helpless, unconscious, and clearly broken. Then Ellen noticed a large red bump was beginning to rise on the child’s forehead.
            Every instinct in Ellen was screaming ‘Hide! Find cover!’ but for the first time in her life, she did not want to listen, she needed to stay present, to help, to watch over, to be…was it possible? Responsible for some one else. Ellen’s pulse steadied, settling into a furious but determined drum roll. “Yes please, right away.”
            In the emergency room, the child was put in an individual room of the ER, her tiny figure dwarfed by the adult-sized gurney. Ellen pulled up the room’s single hard plastic chair to the bedside farthest from the door and slumped, keeping her head low and the girl’s small hand in hers, marveling at the soft fragility of the bones in the tiny fingers, like a slim weed in a crack of a sidewalk, dried brittle in the sun.        
            The admitting nurse approached them. “What’s your daughter’s name?” she asked, readying a clipboard to receive the information.
            “I don’t know.” Ellen said.
            Using their linked fingers, the girl pulled herself close to Ellen’s ear and whispered, barely audibly, “My name is Lydia.”
            “Lydia.” Ellen told the woman without making eye contact. “I’m not her mom, she’s…she’s in the next room. There.” Ellen pointed.
            The nurse glanced up, brow furrowed, but smiled grimly. “Are you in pain, Lydia?”
            Lydia twisted to look up at Ellen who thought, in her world she’s been told not to say anything to strangers. Ellen nodded once, granting permission, and Lydia responded to the query with a quick shake of her head.  
            At that moment, two policemen entered the small room, Ellen reached up her free hand and wrapped it tightly around her left upper arm. The spidery scars there itched as though they were freshly scabbed instead of years old. She wasn’t even sure why, only that whenever she saw police in uniform, Ellen had flashes of one of her early foster homes, of a policeman with a drinking problem and a cruel streak, and she remembered the startled look of pity on the teacher’s face who had noticed the multiple scabs scratched into Ellen’s upper arm, prompting yet another change of foster homes. Ellen shook it off, like raindrops from an umbrella.
            The first officer in scanned the room twice before he spotted Ellen. “We need to get some information and a statement from you Ma’am.”
            Ellen took a shaky breath and tried to think of how to tell them with the least amount of words, and notice. “A guy, big, white, probably on drugs, got on the bus and attacked the driver. It crashed.” She was rubbing her arm furiously.
            “Are you all right?” the officer asked.
            Ellen stopped the rubbing and held her fisted hand firmly in her lap, though the sensation on her arm grew into a burning so strong she imagined she could hear it sizzling. “I’m fine,” she mumbled.
            “Ms…Homes, could I speak to you outside for a moment?”
            A gale force terror struck Ellen and she squeezed her eyes shut to block the wind of it, momentarily rendered incapable of movement. Then, she rose stiffly and pried Lydia’s hand from hers. “I’ll be right back,” she told the girl.
            “Don’t leave.” The girl spoke simply, almost inaudibly. Yet the two words crushed Ellen.
            “I won’t,” Ellen said, then she thought, Don’t lie to her! So she added, “Not yet.” As Ellen followed the officer out, his partner sat down next to the bed. Lydia ignored him and kept her eyes riveted on Ellen on the other side of the glass. 
            “So you wouldn’t have any idea who we could contact to pick this child up, would you?”
            Ellen’s heart leapt from her chest, slammed against the wall and slid to the floor, shriveled and bruised. She held her breath until it flopped its way back into her chest. This was too like her own story, no one to come for her. It was one of many chapters of her life too painful to be re-lived. She had survived it precisely because she did not re-live it—ever.
            Ellen shrugged off the shadow of her own debilitating scenario and managed a single word. “No.”
            The officer shook his head. “Child services is on their way and they can place her for the night at least.”
            Ellen thought of the mother’s battered body being carried from the bus and understood that one night would almost certainly become a hundred, then a thousand. The memories of her own desertion that ambushed her now were so painful that out of desperation she began to shut down. The Novocain of denial, of a lifetime of conditioning herself not to feel, to look only forward, never back, began in her gut and spread like a thick gooey stain.  The addictive response was a hit of saturated numbness.
            “Can I go?” Ellen asked the officer.
            “I’m not going to keep you.” He unclipped her I.D. and handed it to her. Without waiting, Ellen gratefully turned away from him and back toward the room. She would go in and tell Lydia that she had to go but that she’d be all right, though the only thing Ellen knew for certain was that the girl was about to become a ward of the state. Through the glass, Lydia was watching her with her strange, round eyes. She raised her hands and held them out toward Ellen.
            Ellen felt something just above her stomach splinter like thin ice fracturing, and it crumpled her. She put one hand against the window to steady herself. She tried to force her body to turn toward the doorway and go back in, but at that moment, a woman in tan slacks and a tight bun walked briskly though the Emergency room doors. Ellen knew what she was even before the woman took up her position in Lydia’s doorway. She’d seen this same person a dozen times before, each time, they had been different ages, had had different hair, skin color, sex, even different accents, but they’d all been the same person to Ellen. Not even a person really, more like a force, an institution.  
            “Lydia Carson?” the woman called out, advancing on Lydia like an animal she’d struck with a car that was bleeding on the side of the road. Through the open door, Ellen could hear her say, “My name is Serena and I’m here to help you. There’s no reason to be afraid.” 
             Ellen could not enter while the generic face of so many of her nightmares occupied the space. What a stupid thing to say, she thought bitterly. Of course she’s afraid, of course she has reason, why pretend to a child who knows fear so much better than you?  She remembered hearing the same banal words, the same promises of safety and care that were never delivered. She stood, wondering if anyone could see that she was inside out and praying that they couldn’t see her at all. Struggling to fend the panic off, Ellen began to take sharp, shallow breaths as the woman’s  expression,  a fixed smile that did not extend to her eyes,. stimulated a flurry of ugly images for Ellen. Before she fell spinning into that dark gaping void of the emotions she could not control, Ellen fled.
            She reached the corner of the hallway and powered on around it, so targeted on the anonymity beyond the exit that she did not see the man directly in her path. Ellen tried to alter the direction of her momentum—not an easy shift when her one hundred and eighty pounds were fully committed elsewhere..
            “I’m glad you’re okay. Are you leaving?” It was the undercover police officer from the bus.
            She looked up in both surprise and relief.  Somehow this capable cop in jeans didn’t frighten her the way the uniforms did. The harshly lit hallway revealed that he was much older than he first appeared, closer to mid-thirty, she thought.
            “Uh, yeah.” Ellen managed.
            “I’m glad I ran into you first. I wanted to give you this.” He pulled out a card and handed it to Ellen. She looked down at it to avoid the naked feeling of his eyes on her. It read, ‘Detective Lionel Barclay.’ Beneath that were his precinct and a phone number.  
            Ellen mumbled “Sure,” and pocketed the card.
            “How’s the little girl?” Detective Lionel Barclay asked.
            “I don’t know.” She hesitated, for some reason she felt compelled to share something with this man. The sensation was alien, yet not as threatening as she would have thought. So she ventured, “I don’t suppose she’s doing very well, do you?”
            Lionel Barclay sighed. “No, I don’t suppose she is. I think it really helped that you were there. You seem to be good with kids.”
            If the officer had pulled out his gun and shot her, Ellen could not have been more startled. Good with kids? Kids had made her own childhood a living hell. She had been good at avoiding them, but that was the extent of it.
            “I, uh, don’t really know any kids,” was all she said.
            The detective laughed. “Well, let me know how you’re doing. I’m really grateful to you. If there’s anything you need, please let me know.” 
            Ellen nodded shallowly and got going more carefully this time but picking up speed as her need to be invisible grew to an aching necessity. The doors  opened and Ellen felt the chilly early morning air rush over her, soothing her tattered nerves.
            But the name Lydia Carson repeated itself over and over with a steady, constant beat in her brain. The mantra grew from weak to strong, forcing back the paralyzing memories.
            Lydia Carson, Lydia Carson. Over and over Ellen repeated the feeble syllables of the name in a syncopated rhythm until they steadied and grew stronger, Lydia CARson, Lydia CARson, Lydia CARson, like a new heartbeat born of intent.  

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Becoming Ellen “Becoming Ellen deftly picks up where Invisible Ellen, a favorite of mine, leaves off. It’s a novel of grace and tenderness, so darkly funny in places it made me laugh out loud; I kept stopping as I read, to hold on to these wonderful characters, to keep them with me just a little longer.”  —Luanne Rice, New York Times–bestselling author 

Reading Group Guide

BECOMING ELLEN Reader’s guide.
1. In Becoming Ellen, Ellen learns that it’s important to be “useful” in life. How does she begin to live this philosophy?
2. Why is Ellen the only one who Seth, the kid who lives in the basement, will ever be able to trust and believe in?
3. In what ways does the discovery of baking, and the ability to produce something tasty, even beautiful, change Ellen?
4. The cellist Rupert and Ellen seem likely friends, but they are both excruciatingly shy. How does this reticence enhance their possible connection or keep them apart?
5. Thelma, the produce manager at Costco, is “different” in her own way. How does Ellen relate to that difference? Thelma refuses to be bullied by dock manager Eric—or anyone else, for that matter. Discuss how witnessing this display of courage changes Ellen.
6. When we meet Justice and Temerity’s parents, we discover that father Andy is far more badly scarred than Ellen ever was. Why is this such a revelation for her? How has it helped make the twins who they are?
7. The idea of helping someone seems very alien to Ellen. So when Lydia “falls into her lap,” why do you think Ellen feels compelled to do something?
8. The social worker, Serena, is a terrifying figure to Ellen. Discuss how people who spend their lives trying to help others while working with a flawed system’s insufficient resources can be viewed in this way. Is it fair?
9. For the first time, we see that Temerity, too, has inhibitions and fears. Do you believe this is due to a lack of trust in others or in herself? Does she have reason to see herself as the flawed partner in a relationship?
10. Ellen finds out that her birth mother is dead and that there is a family member out there whom she wasn’t aware of. Why is it so impossible for her to face this fact? If you found out about a sibling you didn’t know you had, would you try to find him or her? Is it important that Ellen and her newly discovered relative are biologically related?
11.  Ellen has seen so much in her young life that she reacts coldly to the struggles of people around her. Discuss how living in a world with so much suffering and indifference can change one’s point of view and affect one’s capacity to be “touched” by the plight of others.
12. Ellen has changed dramatically from the beginning of Invisible Ellen to the end of Becoming Ellen. What changes have you seen in her over the course of Shari Shattuck’s two novels?

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Becoming Ellen 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fabulous follow-up to her first book about Invisible Ellen. Hated to have to put either book down.
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Ellen is back. In Invisible Ellen we learn about her horrible childhood and how it has scarred her mentally and physically. She is now coming out of her shell with the help of Temerity and Justice and relying less on food than she has in the past. Ellen is still slowly working through her problems. But when she finds others in need, she can’t help but step up and protect and help them. In a bus accident Ellen finds a young girl to protect from the foster system. She also discovers a run away and a co-worker that need her help too. As she is forced to step out of her small comfort zone we also learn more about the abuse she went through in the foster system. This is a sequel to Invisible Ellen. Although you can read this book by itself, I would recommend you read Invisible Ellen first. You will learn so much more about Ellen and how far she has come. I was so glad to see how far out of her shell Ellen is getting. I loved how she stepped up to help others even though she really wanted to avoid the situation. It did break my heart because you learn more about the abuse she went through as a child. The problem I had with this story was there were some situations that Ellen and her group were in and it just didn’t feel realistic. Now having said that, anything can happen in a book and the truth is always scarier and sadder than fiction. I loved watching Ellen keep fighting and protecting those she cared for. In the first book we learn about Ellen. In this book you learn about how she is growing and helping others. I’m curious to see where she goes from here. I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
The main character is Ellen. Ellen is social awkward for many good reasons. Her history is not easy, yet she has managed to live a semi-normal life. She works, she has roommates, and she is getting more social. I loved her “relationship” with Rupert. While she was clueless as to what he was asking her, she realized that he was a good guy and managed to be in the same room with him and even have a conversation or two. The last part of this book definitely shows the leaps and bounds that Ellen has made in her ability to step out of her comfort zone. While this book is all about Ellen the secondary characters are who caught my attention. I loved Temerity and Justice. Shari Shattuck did an excellent job of giving the reader a peek into their lives while keeping the story mainly about Ellen. The peeks managed to get my curiosity up about the rest of their lives. We met their family and realized how amazing their parents are. Not many parents can handle what Temerity and Justice’s friends are dealing with. This is a series. I did not read the first book in this series and probably will not go back and read it. I do not feel that I missed anything by not reading it. Shari Shattuck gave enough background to the characters that I had a good understanding of why they were how they were.