Ellen Foster – Book Review

When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. – from Ellen Foster, page 1 –

So what do you do when that spinning starts and the motion carries the time wild by you and you cannot stop to see one thing to grab and stop yourself? You stand still the best you can and say strong and loud for the circle of spinning to stop so you can walk away from the noise. That is how I walked then. – from Ellen Foster, page 110 –

When this novel opens in an unnamed Southern town, Ellen is ten years old and she is telling her story which is not always easy to hear. Ellen’s father is an abusive parent and spouse … he sits by and watches Ellen’s mother overdose on prescription medicine, then threatens to kill his daughter if she seeks help for her mother. Ellen curls up next to her mother and waits for her to die. Later, she runs to her aunt after her father attempts to molest her…but her safety, it turns out, is only guaranteed for a weekend after which her aunt returns her to her father’s care.

Aunt Betsy lets me off at the end of the path just like I ask and I walk the rest of the way to the house. I will just have to lock myself up is what I thought. If I have to stay here I can lock myself up. Push the chair up to the door and keep something in there to hit with just in case. – from Ellen Foster, page 42 –

As Ellen narrates her story, she moves back and forth from present day (living with a loving foster family) to her past. Ellen’s voice is unique – funny, determined, savvy. The story she tells is heartbreaking in its starkness, the abuse as much emotional as physical. I wanted to cry for her more than once. But Ellen is nothing but resilient and wise beyond her years, and she does not spend time crying for herself – she continually holds to her dreams and moves forward against the worst of odds.

I was moved by her friendship with a young black girl Starletta. Prejudice is still the norm and Ellen’s thoughts of her friend reflects this.

Starletta slides out of her chair and her mama says to take something you better eat.

Starletta is not big as a minute.

She came at me with a biscuit in her hand and held it to my face. No matter how good it looks to you it is still a colored biscuit. – from Ellen Foster, page 32 –

Later Ellen comes to terms with the rejection of her blood relatives in the aftermath of her abuse at her father’s hand, and in doing so, she grows to love and understand Starletta. She appreciates the difficulty of racism and finds her own struggles small compared to what Starletta and her family have had to deal with.

It is the same girl but I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife. – from Ellen Foster, page 85 –

In the end Ellen must save herself when the adults in her life fail to safeguard her future. She finally finds love and acceptance through the kindness of her “new mama”… a foster parent who opens her arms and heart to children who need her.

Ellen Foster is a stunning, simple book about domestic violence, abuse and racism through the eyes of a child. Ellen is a survivor by any definition. She uses her intelligence, wisdom, and wit to overcome things that a child should never have to overcome. I grew to love this character who beats the odds and eventually finds a home where she is accepted.

Kaye Gibbons has penned an important book which provides an honest, searing look into society’s most shameful crime – that of child abuse.

Highly recommended.

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  1. Excellent review of an excellent book!

  2. This sounds like my kind of book. I’ve never figured out why I’m attracted to survivor stories like that.

    • Nicola on March 26, 2010 at 15:37

    Wow, sounds wonderful!

    • Laura on March 26, 2010 at 17:01

    I read this book years & years ago (I think it was an Oprah selection?) and loved it, although I didn’t remember much of it. Great review.

    • Jaime on March 26, 2010 at 17:18

    My creative writing teacher RAVES about this book. She always uses it as an example of an excellent opening.

  3. I loved this book. If you liked this book you need to read Charms for An Easy Life also by Kaye Gibbons. It’s one of my favorite books.

  4. Wow, wow, wow. I don’t know if I’ll be picking this one up because it sounds so intense, but you’ve definitely given me something to think about. Great, great review.

    • Wendy on March 27, 2010 at 08:03

    Staci: Thanks 🙂

    Kathy: I like survivor stories too – I think perhaps it is because I like to see the underdog win…

    Nicola: It is a pretty intense book.

    Laura: Yup, it was an Oprah pick. Of course you loved it, because I did too 🙂

    Jamie: I agree with your teacher – great opening line that immediately hooks the reader.

    Beachreader: Thanks for the recommendation. The only other book I’ve read by Gibbons was A Virtuous Woman which I also loved. I think I’ll have to pick up the rest of her work 🙂

    Swapna: Thank you! It is intense…but it is worth the read.

    • gavin on March 27, 2010 at 17:04

    Thanks for this review! I’ve never read Gibbons but am adding this one to my list.

  5. It sounds odd to say that I loved this book (given the subject matter) but, well … I loved this book. Definitely one of my favorites. I’m going to add your review to the links after mine.

    • Wendy on March 29, 2010 at 07:55

    Gavin: I think you would enjoy Gibbons’ style of writing. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

    Melissa: Thanks for adding my link 🙂 I need to pop over and read your review. I totally understand what you are saying – despite the tough subject matter, Ellen is such a lovable and unique character…and the writing in this book is fantastic.

    • Allie on March 31, 2010 at 12:09

    I love Ellen Foster. I read it years ago and it’s one of those books that has really stuck with me. It was so absorbing! Great review!

    • Wendy on April 2, 2010 at 09:43

    Allie: For me, it was Ellen’s unique voice that really put this book into another league. Glad you also loved it!

    • sabrina on September 28, 2012 at 04:57

    i had to read this book in school and this helped me a lot to write my essay!!! Great review

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