Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

This is not a new book, but I've recently re-read Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. It's a very short novel, 146 pages, set in the rural and small-town South. It was one of Oprah's first picks for her fiction book club. I think it goes along with my theme of children at risk this week.  (Not that I knew I would have a theme this week.)
For a couple of years Ellen Foster endured life- and sanity- threatening events. At the time she describes these events, she is in a better place:
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 plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more.
In Ellen's eyes, this is luxury, sure. But mostly it's what she thinks of as decent living.
When I eat my breakfast I compare it to the one featured on the side of the cereal box and it all matches. Toast. Eggs. Juice and milk. Cereal.
Life with her new mama is great. Except she does not want to talk to the school psychiatrist on Tuesdays.

She was the only carrier of decency in her life before that, and she had to learn it elsewhere: on cereal boxes, through snide comments, the rules written on the electric bill. It's all trial and error.  Her mother, from a rich neighborhood family, dies; her alcoholic father is negligent and abusive. It's Ellen who buys the groceries, sends the money for the bills, hides in the closet when her dad's friends are in the house. She is taken in by her teacher, who is fired for being unconventional; then by her mother's family, first one then the other, for various reasons: to avenge themselves on her mother's bad marriage and death, to look good in the community, or to have a little hobby. None of it works out.

Ellen finally carries her box of belongings to the house of the Foster family.  She takes her fate in her own hands. She's carrying a huge load outside of that box too, but she's smart and sassy and reading far past her grade school level. She's strong and intelligent. And small.

If you read this book, you will be horrified, laugh, weep, and finally marvel at the resilience of a good child in the worst of situations. The book is seamlessly written. Once I think I can't stomach another pitfall for Ellen Foster, it switches to her new life. I keep reading, wondering what this girl will say next in her matter-of-fact voice.

The author manages to get it all in and have you cheering for Ellen--and her selflessness, (which she learned--where?) by the end. I think you learn not just about an abused child, but about children in general. A little how they think and what matters to them the most--love, food, affection, learning how to do things right in the world. It also shows its readers that the best impulses can arise amid the worst situations. In short, it is about a child, so it is about honesty and hope.

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.


Unknown said...

Ok, you've convinced me. Its on my list to read now. In fact next time I go to B&N I'll be picking it up.

Thanks for the review!!

Ann T. said...

Dear peedee,
Yes, I do think you might like it! I certainly hope so, b/c otherwise you will never trust one of my book reviews again!

Thanks for popping in, my lady,


The Bug said...

I have this book on my shelf - I read it in seminary. But that was MANY years ago, so I think I'll take it down & read it again. Thanks for reminding me about it!

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Never heard of this book. Will have to check it out. Thanks for adding to my summer reading list.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug and The Observer,
I hope you enjoy! It was good to re-read this book--I guess that's the test, right?

Thanks for stopping in!
Ann T.