54 pages 1 hour read

Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Ellen Foster is a work of adult fiction by US novelist Kaye Gibbons, first published by Algonquin Books in 1987. The novel was Gibbons’s debut, and it won the Sue Kaufman Prize for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a notable citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Critics praised the novel for its unsentimental outlook and the wry, distinct voice of its protagonist. Ellen, a young girl living in the American South, is bounced from place to place until she finds a home with a foster family. Gibbons later shared that the novel was semi-autobiographical. It inspired a Hallmark movie made in 1997 and a sequel, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, published in 2006.

This guide uses the Vintage Contemporaries paperback edition of Ellen Foster published in 1990.

Content Warning: The source material referenced in this guide contains references to domestic violence, child sexual assault and psychological abuse, child neglect, suicide, alcohol use, anti-Black racism, bigoted language, and racial slurs, including the n-word, which this guide does not replicate.

Plot Summary

Ellen Foster spans around two years of the life of a young white girl living in an unidentified town in the Southern US in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Ellen, who at age 11 has found a secure home with a foster family and a “new mama,” describes her new situation and reflects on the turbulent events that led her there.

After her mother dies by overdosing on heart pills, which Ellen believes she did to escape ongoing emotional and psychological abuse from her husband, Ellen is left with her overbearing father. The funeral is uncomfortable, as Ellen’s “mama’s mama” hates Ellen’s daddy. While her father, whom she detests, is often absent and drunk when he is home, Ellen looks after herself while fantasizing about ways her father might die. Ellen’s uncle, her father’s brother, delivers money in an envelope to their mailbox every month, and Ellen uses it to pay the utility bills as well as to buy food and her own Christmas presents.

Ellen’s only friend is Starletta, a girl her age who lives nearby. Ellen has been taught to consider Starletta “inferior” because Starletta is Black and Ellen is white, but Starletta’s parents share their food and home with Ellen and offer an example of a loving family, inviting her to their Christmas meal and giving Ellen a gift.

The first time Ellen’s father assaults her, on New Year’s Eve, she flees to Starletta’s home for refuge. She packs a box of her things and asks her Aunt Betsy if she might stay with her. Betsy only keeps Ellen for a weekend and then takes her home, where Ellen does her best to protect herself from continued assaults from her father. When a teacher at school notices a bruise on her arm, Ellen is allowed to go home with the art teacher, Julia, whose comfortable and artistic life with her husband, Roy, is a source of wonder to Ellen. Ellen celebrates her 11th birthday with Starletta as her guest.

After Ellen’s father shows up at Ellen’s school, creating a disturbance and shouting for Ellen to return, Ellen’s case is heard before a judge. The judge rules that family is the cornerstone of civil society, and Ellen should be in the custody of her grandmother. Ellen soon learns that her grandmother resents Ellen for being her father’s daughter and blames Ellen for assisting her mother’s suicide. Her grandmother orders Ellen to work in her cotton fields over the summer, where Ellen is taken under the wing of a caring Black woman, Mavis, who tells Ellen stories of her mother.

Ellen, feeling guilty over her mother’s death, nurses her grandmother when she becomes ill with the flu. When her grandmother passes away, Aunt Nadine, her mother’s sister, takes Ellen in, but she is uncomfortable in her aunt’s house. She envies the close relationship Nadine has with Dora, her daughter about Ellen’s age, and Dora’s sheltered life magnifies Ellen’s own losses. When Nadine asks Ellen what she would like for Christmas, Ellen, who likes to draw and paint, asks for art paper. She secretly hopes that Nadine will shower her with gifts as she does Dora, expressing a desire for Ellen to be part of their family after all. In return, Ellen draws a picture of cats which she believes will please her aunt and cousin. Dora disparages the gift, calling it cheap, and in return, Ellen insults and teases Dora. Nadine calls Ellen ungrateful and orders Ellen to leave her house.

Ellen packs her box, takes the money she has saved, and on Christmas Day, walks across town to the home of a woman she has seen at church whom she has been told takes in girls like her. The woman agrees to foster Ellen, who thereafter begins to think of herself as Ellen Foster. Ellen loves her new situation. She has a tidy bedroom with handmade curtains; there is fresh food made for her meals; there is a pony she can ride; and new mama often organizes activities with the other foster children. Ellen’s one remaining wish is to make up to Starletta, as Ellen is ashamed that she ever thought Starletta was beneath her. Ellen gains new mama’s permission to invite Starletta to stay the weekend and, as soon as they are alone, Ellen confesses how sorry she is that she once thought herself superior to Starletta. Starletta falls asleep in Ellen’s bed while Ellen reflects, in her first reach toward empathy, that other people may have an even harder situation than she does.