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Ellen Foster

Ellen Foster

3.9 142
by Kaye Gibbons

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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 and run it down through my head until it got easy.' So it begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kaye Gibbon's much acclaimed first Novel. The story of an eleven-year-old orphan, driven to desperation by some of the


'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 and run it down through my head until it got easy.' So it begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kaye Gibbon's much acclaimed first Novel. The story of an eleven-year-old orphan, driven to desperation by some of the wickedest relatives in literary history, this is the story of her battle for survival. Wise, funny and affectionate.

Editorial Reviews

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.
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

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series

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 bushessquare.

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

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.

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

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

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Ellen Foster 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 142 reviews.
chibisinger More than 1 year ago
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.
TheDiane More than 1 year ago
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.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
The book starts off strong with Ellen (insert name here) wanting to kill her daddy. Shocking beginning, and then? It fizzles. Ellen lives with her sickly mother and dead beat dad. Her mother kills herself and her father eventually does too - just not intentionally. She bounces from house to house - some family, some not and finally ends up in a loving foster home. Funnily enough - she calls herself Ellen Foster b/c she erroneously things her foster family is The Foster Family.  Anyway, the best part of this book is race relations. Ellen is a white girl with a black best friend. Ellen might have a black best friend, but she is still prejudice based on her upbringing. She refuses to eat or drink at her best friend's house. She thinks the worst thing would be to have to spend a night at her best friends house. Through her many moves with many family members, she overcome the prejudices realizing that there are things worse than sharing a glass of water with her black best friend. And it is the relationship b/w Scarletta and Ellen that is the highlight of the book. 
Kathy3KL More than 1 year ago
I liked it very much. It was an easy read and a true opportunity to get into the main character with her trials and tribulations. Having worked in the field of a Child Abuse Investigator as well as Foster Care I could really relate tp this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great look at the impact that dysfunctional families have on the well-being of children. At times hard to follow but a very fast read.
JessicaM_Review-2013 More than 1 year ago
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!!!
iloveschool-_- More than 1 year ago
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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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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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.
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Addison11 More than 1 year ago
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!