Kaye Gibbons was born in 1960 in Nash County, North Carolina. Growing up she loved to write. She graduated from Rocky Mount High School in 1978 and went on to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
While in college she wrote her first book, Ellen Foster, it was a huge success. Ellen Foster won the Sue Kaufinan Award for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters and many other awards. Also, it has recently been translated into many languages and gained recognition worldwide. She has written other books one being, A Virtuous Woman, which has also gained recognition.
Kaye Gibbons is married and has a daughter. They live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Besides writing she is working on her degree at UNC.
Setting and Atmosphere
The novel, Ellen Foster, takes place in a small town in the South. There are not very many people but the people that live there are very segregated and there is a lot of discrimination. The discrimination is one of the key points throughout the novel.
Ellen, the main character, travels between many houses within this little town. The first, is in a house where her, her mom, and her dad live together. Then she moves to a house with her teacher, then she moves in with her grandma, and then she moves in with her aunt and cousin. Finally, she moves in with her new
The novel is a story told by Ellen. Ellen is a smart and calm young girl. It is told in a manner that nothing major ever takes place but actually many important events happen. You would think that these events would effect a young girl much more than they affect Ellen. She tells each event calmly which makes the atmosphere very calm.
Ellen- Ellen is the main character and the narrator in the novel. She is a young white girl who lives in the South. She has a very difficult life. Her mother is fatally ill and eventually dies, her dad is an abusive drank and she hates him. Her family does not like her and she does not like them. Through all of this I believe she is a very strong girl and has had a very tough life.
Starletta- Starletta is Ellen’s best friend. She is black and pretty. She is the same age as Ellen and they are great friends. She lives in a very loving family but they are very poor. They live in a one-room house but have good lives.
Ellen’s Dad- Ellen’s father is a horrible father and man. He is the worst thing to happen to Ellen. He is the one to blame for making Ellen’s life a disaster. He is an abusive drunk and scares Ellen to death. He basically caused the death of Ellen’s mother.
Julia- Julia is the art teacher from school. She takes in Ellen after Ellen’s mother dies. She is married to a man named Roy. This “family” is the first bit of happiness Ellen has and finds out what a real family is like.
Ellen’s Mama’s Mama- She is Ellen’s Grandma. She is a very evil and cruel woman. She hates life and everything associated with it. When Ellen goes to live there she is forced to go work in the fields and when her grandma gets sick she tends for her. When her grandma dies she leaves to go live with somebody else.
Nadine and Dora- This is actually two people but in can be considered one person. Nadine is Ellen’s aunt and Dora is her daughter. They both think that they are perfect and they both believe that the world revolves around them. Ellen lives with them for a while until she yells at both of them and then she is kicked out.
Ellen’s New Mama- Ellen’s New Mama is a foster parent and raises orphaned children. Ellen moves in with her and she accepts Ellen with open arms. She is the best thing to happen to Ellen. She is very loving and caring.
This novel is a story told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl. The story is about events that took place in the past and events that are happening now. The girl is Ellen and all her point of views are very honest and innocent.
The story begins with her telling of when she was little and she gives us some background and then the story begins. Her father returns in the morning, hung over, and not remembering what happened the night before. Ellen hides from him and when he leaves she goes to lie next to her mother. She is dead but she still just lies there.
Then the story moves forward a year or two and Ellen is now with her new family and she decides she is going to ride the pony.
Then the scene switches back to her mom’s funeral. She is with her Aunt Nadine and her cousin Dora. She hates both of them and discusses that for a while. Then at the funeral we meet her mama’s mama. She calls Ellen’s dad a bastard, and then storms out of the funeral home.
The next action she does is joining the girl scouts. Starletta’s dad takes her to buy the uniform. After, Ellen gains most of the badges she quits. Then it was Christmas time. She goes shopping with Starletta and her family and buys presents for them and for herself. On Christmas she went over to Starletta’s house for a while and exchanged presents and played.
Then we switch back to Ellen’s new house and she is having fun. She is riding the pony and gardening.
Again we switch back and it is New Year’s Eve Ellen is hiding because her father came in with a pack of colored men. She runs away to Starletta’s and spent the night there. The next day she calls her aunt if she can stay there and her aunt says fine. Ellen stays with her for the weekend and then has to go back home. When she gets home she locks herself in her room.
At the first day of school her art teacher, Julia, notices a bruise on her arm. Julia decides that Ellen should come live with her. So she moves in with Julia and Roy and has a great time with them. It is her first being part of a loving “family.” Ellen stays there until spring then she must leave.
In the summer Ellen goes to stay in her mama’s mama’s house. She had a bad time there. She was forced to go work in the fields. Before this Ellen’s father had died and while she was staying with her mama’s mama she got sick. Just like her mother and father her grandma died.
Then we move forward to her with her new mama. She is talking about school and how she loves being with Starletta. She comes up with the idea of inviting her over for the weekend. Her new mama says it is okay and she can’t wait.
Then we move back to Ellen’s grandma’s funeral. After the funeral she moves in with her Aunt Nadine and Dora. She hates it there also. But she makes it fun by staying in her room and playing with her microscope. Around Christmas time she decides to paint them a picture for Christmas. She drew a picture of cats playing with yarn. They both said they liked it but she knew they were lying and later overheard them talk about it. This made her really angry. She then went off on Nadine and Dora and got kicked out of the house.
She leaves their house and walks over to her new mama’s house and asks if she can stay with her. Her new mama says yes. She moves in with them and now the past is caught up with the present. Ellen is finally satisfied with her life.
Kaye Gibbons has many distinguishing elements in her writing. The first, and most obvious, difference is how she switches back and forth between the past and present. It is very unique and creative. This can be distracting but I enjoyed it and thought it was interesting.
Another interesting thing is how she does not use quotation marks throughout the whole story. I have no idea why she doesn’t use quotation marks but it is an interesting way to tell a story.
Also, it is different how she develops the characters. There are only good or bad characters none in between. All the characters that are on Ellen’s side such as Starletta and her New Mama the reader likes. All the characters that seem to be against Ellen such as her dad and Nadine and Dora the reader dislikes.
Finally, the one point in the novel that is the most important is that an eleven-year-old girl narrates it. This fact influences whether or not the reader will understand the story. Overall, Kaye Gibbons’ style is unique and interesting and I enjoyed her style a lot.
1. Page 20
“Starletta and her mama both eat dirt. My daddy slapped me for eating dirt”
The significance of this quote will not hit one, as the reader, until later on in the book. But for now one would see it as Ellen’s opinions on black people. By her saying this it shows how they are definitely negative opinions.
“As Fond as I am of all three of them I do not think I could drink after them. I try to see what Starletta leaves on the lip of a bottle but I have never seen anything with the naked eye. If something is so small it is bound to get into your system and do some damage.”
Ellen’s view towards black people at this time is that they are dirty. This is someone weird considering that she has a friend that is black. By her saying this exemplifies the fact the she is proud to be white and will accept black person as a friend but will never lower herself to the same level as one. This opinion will soon change.
3. Page 32
“She came at me with a biscuit in her hand and held to my face. No matter how good it looks to you it is still a colored biscuit.”
This shows again how Ellen is putting aside a human necessity to feed the separation between herself and black people. These thoughts and ideas will soon be non-existent as she matures with age.
4. Page 66
“Somebody riding by here in a car could not see my face and know how I was white. But that is OK now I thought to myself of how it did not make much of a difference anymore.
Suddenly all of these traumatic things that Ellen has been through may have changed her opinions from an early different Ellen. This helps to underscore the theme of Rites of passage or coming of age. It shows how once she was immature and ignorant and thought that black people were different. It now shows that she is beginning to think that they are not as different as she is.
5. Page 85
“I wonder to myself am I the same girl who would not drink after Starletta two years ago or eat a colored biscuit when I was starved.
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.”
This quote of Ellen has definitely shown that she has made a large rite of passage and with her coming of age she has realized things that many other older people of this time have not realized. She has fully realized that she is no different than a black person. In the quote above she didn’t fully realize that she was no different than a black person. She just thought that it didn’t matter anymore.
The theme that I believe best represents the novel, Ellen Foster, is Rites of Passage (Coming-of-Age). I think this is the best theme for many reasons. First because Ellen continued to grow throughout the story. She was able to deal with many situations in the way she wanted to and took control of her own life. She was also able to deal with death a lot easier than would be expected of an eleven year-old. Also, she is able to handle tough situations as an adult would. She is very grown up for her, age and is a very compelling child. That is why we like her so much.