“Ellen Foster” by Kaye Gibbons

It’s been a long time since I read a book that I could not put down – Just Kidding! I recently came to the startling revelation that I have begun my last two blog posts with that line. Clearly, it’s not that long between good books – it only seems that way. (Equally clear? My memory really is shot.)

For this month’s blog, I went back to an old favorite, that when I first read in 1988, I could not put down. Ellen Foster is Kaye Gibbons’ first novel (Novel being a bit of a stretch. At 125 pages, this book reads more like an extended short story).  After finishing it, I eagerly awaited all of her subsequent writing. A native of North Carolina, Gibbons drew praise for this book from southern compatriots such as Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. 

Gibbons imparts an engaging tale about Ellen Foster, a gritty eleven year old, who becomes an orphan after her frail, unhappy mother dies and she finally escapes her abusive father. Gibbons weaves scenes from Ellen’s current life of stability and care with those of her past.

I fell in love with Ellen in the first few pages of the book as she takes care of her sickly mother and tries to protect her from her father’s harsh ways. Ellen is almost like a character out of a Dickens’ novel, at the mercy of cruel or uncaring adults, until her wits and pluck serve to right her potentially tragic situation. The back and forth cadence of the book serves to reassure the reader that Ellen makes it out of her horrendous family in tact. I appreciated the early knowledge that the book was not going to turn out grotesquely dark, but that Ellen somehow finds her way out of the dark tunnel she was born into. This early information in no way spoils the mystery that unravels as to Ellen’s plight to find a sense of family, but makes bearable the tale of Ellen’s journey from one misfit relative to the next.

I cannot believe that it’s been well over a decade since I first read this book. When I think of the most memorable and beloved characters I have encountered in books over the years, Ellen springs quickly to mind. I will say it again: I fell in love with Ellen Foster and rooted for her with every turn of the page. I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t. The compassion I felt for this girl seemed the culmination of compassion I have felt for every child laid victim of tragic circumstances and unexplainably cruel adults. And there is so much to admire in Ellen! Written in the vernacular of the character’s poor southern upbringing, Gibbons paints a clear picture of this child’s environment, complete with prejudices. When Ellen says of her ill-tempered grandmother, “She was the kind of woman you cannot even die to suit”, I had a vivid image of her mama’s mama. I cheered for Ellen when she finally managed to find family and marveled at the wisdom she gained by the end of the book.

If you like Ellen Foster, check out Gibbons’ other short novels, including A Virtuous Woman, another one of my favorites.

 ~ Donna

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