Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

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 at let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild 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 there to there. ~Ellen Foster

The cover of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons has a quote from Walker Percy claiming, “Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caulfield…” That is what hooked me. A female, southern Holden?  Sold.

Other than the fact that they were both on their own throughout the novel, there really were no similarities.

ellen-fosterHolden was a wealthy, prep school kid who was suffering from PTSD and probably depression after the death of his brother Allie.  Ellen Foster is dirt poor and lives with an abusive drunk father and a mother who is too sick (probably from the father) to fight back for either of them.  Eventually Ellen becomes orphaned.

Holden was a teenager, Ellen was about ten.

Holden chose to runaway for a weekend.  Ellen chose to keep fighting for her own destiny which sometimes involved leaving places.

Holden was a victim of the terrible mental health system for everyone, but mostly for kids in the 1940’s.  Ellen was a victim of poverty, abuse, and a system that favored family ties over the good of the child in the late 1980’s.

Enough about the differences between the books and on to why Ellen Foster is a great read.

The title character, Ellen Foster, is an upper-elementary school aged child who tells the extraordinary story of how she went from living in fear and poverty to predictability and comfort…the story of how she came to live with her “new momma.”

She doesn’t beat around the bush with how awful her life was as a little child: “When I was little,” the novel begins, “I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”  She then goes on to talk about how she wouldn’t feel bad if he died and how nice it would be to have him out of the way.  She also tells the reader about her sick mom, her best friend who is black and lives in the “black part of town” (the novel takes place in the South), and how she gets passed around her awful family after she can no longer live with her parents.

Gibbons does a remarkable job at putting this first person narrative into the mouth of a 10-year old, perhaps that is why Ellen Foster has been compared to Holden Caulfield.  The way Salinger wrote from Holden’s perspective–the slang, the uncertainty, the bragging–is exactly what Gibbons captured with Ellen.  You feel like a 5th grader is telling you a story, but in a good way.

And much like a 5th grader, she doesn’t spend a lot of time on things that wouldn’t concern a 5th grader.  There are no long, flowery descriptions or tons of back story.  You get the info she gives you to make her story move on.

And much like talking to a child, the reader has questions that don’t get answered.  Why was your mom sick?  Was it the abuse? Was it mental?  What happened to your dad’s family?  Why couldn’t you live with them?  Why were your parents the way they were? And so on.

She gives us her story and nothing more.

It’s a quick read, but there is a lot there.  It’s a novel filled with humor, sadness, sass, and determination.

Ellen Foster is definitely a novel you will read through quickly, but you will be glad you picked it up.  It’s lovely.

Tell me, do you enjoy books with kid/teen narrators that are not considered Young Adult Lit?  What are your favorites?

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  1. This book is one of my all-time favorites mostly because of the way the author does such an amazing job of making you believe it’s Ellen Foster telling the story. It’s amazingly well done. Glad you enjoye it too!

    • I did love it. And I totally happened upon it by random! It was just in a pile of books from a friend. I had never heard of it!

      • I will warn you though, there is a sequel to Ellen Foster (I forget what it’s called) that isn’t nearly as good. I wouldn’t recommend it at all!

        I know I’ve read a few of Kaye Gibbons’ other books, but it has been a very long time. I remember I didn’t enjoy them as much as this one.

      • What a great reoucrse this text is.

  2. Sounds really interesting! Going on my to-read list.

  3. Oh great, another book I need to get my hands on… As though I wasn’t already in the middle of three… Or four. :-)

  4. I love Ellen Foster! In college I played Ellen in a theatrical adaptation of the book. I was “big Ellen” and was able to meet Kaye Gibbons when she attended opening night.

  5. That is a great line to start a novel with.

  6. Yow. I’m hooked.

  7. One of my favorite books! I re-read it every few years. Have you read Bastard out of Caroline by Dorothy Allison?

  8. Awesome to hear such a positive review of this book. You make it enticing. Honestly, having not loved The Catcher in the Rye and with that cover, I probably would not have given the book a second glance otherwise.

  9. Oh, as slow a reader as I am these days, I’m all about a quick read! Going to check it out.

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