Ellen Foster

by Kaye Gibbons

Hardcover, 1988




Jonathan Cape (1988), Edition: First Edition


Having suffered abuse and misfortune for much of her life, a young child searches for a better life and finally gets a break in the home of a loving woman with several foster children.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
If you are looking for a book to take your breath away, this is the one.

If you are looking for an exceptionally well-written novel wherein each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph contains poetic beauty, then this is the one.

If you are looking for a book that resonates deep within your soul,
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leaving you laughing, crying and simply not wanting it to end, then this is the book to read.

And, I'll go out on a huge limb to say that if you choose to read only one of my recommendations this year, please let this be the one!

Oh, my, this book is so incredibly powerful that I don't know enough superlative adjectives to describe it.

In my opinion, the 1987 debut of Gibbons is analogous to the beauty, poetry, and charm of Harper Lee's one and only Pulitzer Prize winning book To Kill a Mockingbird.

While the difficult topics of neglect, abuse, abandonment, poverty, the definition of values, and the searing problem of abiding inherited prejudice would be dark, dramatically depressing topics, in the hands of a skilled author, the reader is left with hope, with a love of the character and with the sure conviction that as humans, we are quite capable of overcoming terrible adversity.

Immediately upon reading the first sentence "When I was young, I would think of ways to kill my daddy.", the reader is hooked. Then, the author brilliantly follows through by telling the story of spunky, precocious, wise beyond her years, ten-year old Ellen Foster.

We follow Ellen through the suicide of her mother, the beatings and emotional abuse of her father, the relatives who did not want her and the trials of moving from one place to another.

The true beauty of the story is that of hope, courage and wisdom.

Ellen has one true friend, a lonely "colored" girl called Starletta. It is through this relationship that Gibbons weaves the negative power of prejudice, and the positive ability to overcome what was taught vs what is true.

Read this book and weep, and cry and laugh and smile and come away knowing you will be haunted by the beauty for a long, long time.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
To be immersed in the naiveté and honesty of a child’s thinking in this book is refreshing, sad and often very funny. Ellen Foster, a 10 year old and perceptive beyond her years, narrates her experiences of life and death which are close to unbearable at times in a truly dysfunctional family.
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Ellen, a strong character, is able to reason through what she does not understand in the adult world (e.g.,abuse, death, control, racism, rules, poverty) and many times sets a course of action to eventually save herself from a shallow and mean existence.

She grows quickly with experience, changing and adapting to what is out of her control with clear purpose and mature behavior. Believing in her own goodness Ellen insists on being treated with respect and learns to respect the goodness in others...regardless of what others think.

Gibbons’ story offers a very special view of the world, and comes across with amazing humor and wisdom. This is a wonderful little book I feel privileged to have read.
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LibraryThing member bettyandboo
There's one major disappointment with this book: the fact that I've had this on my bookshelf for almost 11 years, and I just got around to reading it.

Oprah chose Ellen Foster as her Book Club pick on October 27, 1997. I received this as a Christmas gift that same year but for some unknown reason -
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another more compelling book, perhaps - I never read it. Sure, I glanced at it from time to time, but mostly as it was packed, unpacked, and repacked - and then packed, unpacked and repacked again - and still again a third time, as we moved to three separate residences in 11 years.

Eleven is also the age of Ellen, the protagonist of this exquisite novel. Orphaned, Ellen herself is sent packing after the death of her abusive father (which follows her mother's suicide). The novel deals with Ellen's quest for home in every sense of the word - shelter, yes, but also a place of belonging and acceptance. From Oprah.com:

Ellen's first eleven years are a long fight for survival. Her invalid, abused mother commits suicide, leaving Ellen to the mercies of her daddy, a drunken brute who either ignores her or makes sexual threats. Through her intelligence and grit Ellen is able to provide for herself, but her desperate attempts to create an environment of order and decorum within her nightmarish home are repeatedly foiled by her father. After his death, a judge awards Ellen's custody to her mother's mother, a bitter and vengeful woman who hated her son-in-law for ruining her own daughter's life and who hates the child Ellen for her physical resemblance to him.Against all odds, Ellen never gives up her belief that there is a place for her in the world, a home which will satisfy all her longing for love, acceptance, and order. Her eventual success in finding that home and courageously claiming it as her own is a testimony to her unshakable faith in the possibility of good. She never loses that faith, and she never loses her sense of humor. Ellen Foster, like another American classic, Huckleberry Finn, is for all its high comedy ultimately a serious fable of personal and collective responsibility.

This is a quick read (only 126 pages) and if you have the opportunity to listen to it on audio (as I did), I recommend that version also. Although similar themes have been portrayed in other works, Ellen Foster is an exceptional, compelling and emotional story. As a first novel, this book is a true triumph for the author Kaye Gibbons. As someone who enjoys Southern fiction, I enjoyed this tremendously and look forward to reading more of Kaye Gibbons' work - within the next decade, to be sure.
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LibraryThing member whirled
My heart always breaks reading about kids like Ellen Foster, forced to grow up and fend for themselves well ahead of time. This tale of Southern poverty and abuse reminded me somewhat of Bastard Out Of Carolina, but it is too sketchy and brief to have that book's lasting impact.
LibraryThing member MarshaBrantley
I loved the book all the way from the memorable first line to the last word. Kaye Gibbons takes the reader along on Ellen's journey through harsh times and allows us to watch her change into a more enlightened being and strong female. Girl power!
LibraryThing member readingrat
Unique in that this story of hardship is told entirely from the point of view of a child with no adult mirroring of what is occurring - very effective.
LibraryThing member mom24dogs
From the book cover:
"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."
So begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kaye Gibbon's much acclaimed first novel. The story of an
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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.
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LibraryThing member chackett
One of my favorite books. What amazing characters and what a testimony to resiliency.
LibraryThing member edenkal
It took me a little while to get into this book, but once I got used to the dialogue it was easy. I usually have a hard time reading books about abuse and prefer lighter stories, but I have to say the way it was written through the childs eyes and her non chalant way of talking about it made it
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less depressing. Kaye Gibbons did a great job of using humor to let you know that Ellens fine and she can handle herself. The style of writing is so unique and I've never read anything like it before. Even if only for that reason I think that everybody should read this book. It doesnt hurt that its not too long either. I was finished with it in 2 sittings.
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LibraryThing member SilversReviews
The book was depressing.....we never know what children live through. This being told through the eyes of a child made it even more sad.

I did keep reading, though...what an awful childhood, but she made it through.
LibraryThing member susiesharp
Ellen was a really interesting character.I did enjoy this book but I was confused on what time period it was in.I thought for the longest time it was 50's possibly early 60's. Then there is a paragraph where her teacher says she was a flower child in the 60's and that made the book so different for
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me.I had to pretend I hadn't read that and went on with it in the decade I assumed it was in.
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LibraryThing member rslynch
[close] I read this book in high school English. The first thing I noticed was it was part of that great literature-pushing device known as Oprah's Book Club, so I immediately hated it with discriminatory flair. But then I opened it up, grudgingly at first, and started reading. The story was so
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stark and aching that I had to keep reading, hoping things got better, knowing they might not. I was sad to finish the book because it had brought me so much enjoyment. The book was truly an experience, and I thank Oprah for luring my teacher (who later became a guidance counselor, if that tells you anything) to it. And I would like to thank her again, strangely enough, for having her name plastered on the front so I could find it again, as the only details I could clearly recall when trying to find it again involved abuse, racial issues, and the friend who ate clay. Occasionally I catch the show or pick up the magazine in hopes of finding more fodder, but I am not completely sold on the empire as of yet. :)
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LibraryThing member writestuff
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
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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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LibraryThing member bplma
11 year old Ellen tells her own story of abuse and neglect in mid-20th century North Carolina. Her mother commits suicide to escape her abusive father, and young Ellen learns to take care of herself-- literally putting food on her table and paying bills so she doesn't lose the house and hiding from
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her Daddy and his drunken friends. Strong implication of sexual abuse--no detailed abuse scenes (this is not A CHILD CALLED IT). Ellen bounces back and forth-past to present-- which is comforting because she is in a new foster home-- a good home-- at the end of the story-- the abuse is significant. Ellen grows through out the story-- sub plot of her only friend, a poor black girl names Starletta- lots of growth there too. A quiet, compelling book, sometimes funny--you really like Ellen-- a strong survivor. Has one of the best opening lines i ever read: "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy."
Good book. Quick Read.
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LibraryThing member voracious
10-year-old Ellen is a child living in bad circumstances when her mother kills herself leaving her alone with her abusive, alcoholic father. Ellen is a resilient child, however, and soon takes to stealing money from her father for groceries, paying the bills, and avoiding contact with him whenever
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possible. Things start getting worse and Ellen finds it necessary to escape her home and occasionally stay with Starletta, her young "colored" friend and their family, or with long estranged relatives willing to put her up for a night. Ellen soon finds herself passed between those who wish to help her and relatives who have their own reasons for taking her in. Ellen is truly a wonderful character, flawed in some ways but remarkably strong in others. In her wonderful language and usual perspectives, Ellen is a young lady who steals your heart as you watch her overcome unimaginable challenges in search of a "new mama". I loved this story. A truely wonderful novel that warms your heart and makes you root for the main character.
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LibraryThing member kelawrence
I loved this book - it was amazing and I couldn't put it down. I subsequently searched for all Kay Gibbons' other books to devour after this one. You just lose yourself in her stories - fantastic!
LibraryThing member JeanneMarkert
Lovely, heart wrenching novel about a young girl whohas life thrown at her & her humor & spunk & determinatio help her thru.
LibraryThing member eas311
Ugh, life is depressing. But at least the flashback narrative form allows us to know that Ellen has made it through the worst of it.
LibraryThing member jo-jo
Even though this book is unlike anything I have ever read I can honestly tell you that I loved it. It took a while to get used to the writing style, considering the author did not use quotation marks or even italics to indicate dialague within the pages. It was a very short book at only 126 pages
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but it sure packed a punch with our spunky narrator Ellen doing what she needed to do in order to survive.

Poor 'old' Ellen probably had the worst family life that one could imagine. After both of her parents pass away she finds herself being shuffled from home to home in search of a stable lifestyle. It seemed to me that one of the only stable things in Ellen's life was her friendship with Starletta. Since Starletta was a negro and segregation was just coming to an end, Ellen had a very interesting relationship with her. She couldn't have asked for a better friend than Starletta but she still managed to keep her distance in her own way.

Ellen grows up quickly as she moves from home to home and learns some very valuable life lessons along the way. She learns about the different values that people have and figured out what was important to her. Knowing what she expected to gain from life she put a plan in motion to turn her dream into a reality.

I don't want to say any more about this wonderful story but I will tell you that I, along with the rest of my book club just loved it. It made for a very in-depth discussion and we discovered information about the author that helped understand the story and her writing style. Here is an article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune that you may find interesting if you plan on reading any of her work. We also used discussion questions from Reading Group Guides.com that had us touch on parts of the story that we probably wouldn't have even thought about. I highly recommend this book!
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Gibbons' style reminds me of Cormac McCarthy. For me, that's no compliment. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, making it harder to keep track of, and almost no commas as far as the eye can see. Gibbons at least could claim a rationale for what in McCarthy I can only see as an
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affectation. The first person narrator, Ellen Foster, is a child, poor and uneducated, so at least one could say the punctuation impoverished style fits her.

That doesn't mean I found the novel a pleasure to read, and not just for stylistic reasons (though it's my biggest issue). Although it's at least short--I'd estimate the novel is only about 50 thousand words. But it's fairly bleak, even if shot through with hope since right from the beginning Ellen intersperses the story of her happy new home with her uber dysfunctional biological family (her father isn't sure if his own daughter is 9 or 10, Ellen keeps the home, even pays bills and gets herself her own Christmas gift--and that's the small stuff). There is a dark humor threaded throughout and not a bit of self-pity, but the style kept me from ever connecting with the story.
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LibraryThing member Miccosukee
I read this book long before Oprah discovered it, and it has stayed with me. Kaye Gibbons' look at childhood longing and the need to belong is a bittersweet journey through the eyes of one of the most beloved characters in modern literature.
LibraryThing member siubhank
Eleven-year-old Ellen Foster is an orphan, abused and neglected by her parents and finally abandoned to a series of cold or uncaring relatives, until she finally takes matters into her own hands and finds herself a place to belong With courage, wit, native intelligence,and the occasional kindness
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of others, she finds her own path to salvation.
In Ellen Foster, Gibbons uses her beautiful language, literary acumen, and attention to detail to craft a clean, small spare portrait, a gift to all readers.
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LibraryThing member karenlisa
Ellen Foster By Kaye Gibbons Fall in love with this spunky, honest, smart, clever, brave young girl named Ellen. In a small backward southern town Ellen's mother dies from a heart condition and pure sadness. Her no good father drinks heavily and verbally abuses her daily. She has noone to hold her,
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noone to love her until through her own determination and Gods will she finds her new mama and becomes Ellen Foster. A classic story for all to enjoy. Take a moment to reflect on Ellen's struggle and faith that family and happiness are out there somewhere. She never stops hoping.
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LibraryThing member Luli81
Ellen Foster is a ten year old girl who is rejected by all her family.
After the death of her weak- willed and sick mother she is left mostly on her own, her father being a drunk and violent man and her closer relations wash their hands off their responsibility.
A sad and heart-warming story, in
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which a little girl has to face the world and find her own place in it, keeping the illusion alive, in spite of her desolate surroundings.
Nothing new though.
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LibraryThing member SandraBrower
I read this book as a recommendation from a friend and was lucky enough to find it at the Public library... It was a great read and quick! I love how the book starts out- "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figuare out this or that way and run it through my head until
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it got easy."

It made me wonder what this story was about- what had this poor 11 year old girl gone through.
Ellen Foster was a deeply delightful story from her point of vision.
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