Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina in the year 1960. I have decided to concentrate on her first novel titled Ellen Foster published in 1987. I plan to talk about her use of first person narration, the story structure, and character development, along with the idea of family, friendship, and a child’s search for love.
From the opening lines of Ellen Foster you are introduced to the voice of Ellen, the young girl to which this story is told by. She takes you through many years of her childhood recounting the ups and downs that she goes through. Her first words are, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." She presents a voice not unlike any child that speaks of truth. Throughout the novel she speaks of a truth that is outright hilarious to sometimes depressing and sad. There is a section where she talks about money. She says, "All I really cared about accumulating was money." Who other than a child would admit to something like that? It is this voice that allowed me to fall in love with this character, because she is going through such a rough time and in order to escape it all she plans for the future and starts saving. She was always acting as though she was older than she really was, but come to think of it, maybe a person gains an overall maturity through experience. Throughout the novel Ellen is faced with numerous obstacles. It forces her to become this form of adult built inside a child’s body. Gibbons is constantly keeping the reader in side of Ellen’s head. All these cynical thoughts and remarks we automatically find out through the use of the first person narration. We slowly start to see that this child is extremely confused and lonely. It is not until the near end that she admits her loneliness and wish for comfort as she is trying desperately to make a deal with Jesus. "I reminded Jesus that this not the way a girl needs to be. I told him again to please settle up with me so I could be a pure girl again and somebody good could love me." For me there is no other way to make this novel a success without having Ellen’s voice that which carries the story. Gibbons nails it right on the head and I feel is very accurate in writing the voice of a young girl.
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From the opening couple of pages there is a way in which the story is structured that brings forth a constant suspense in the reader. It constantly jumps from the present back to the past and then back to the present. Gibbons makes the choice to present the reader with two different points in time and jumps back and forth sometimes without you even noticing. This goes on until the final chapter. While I was reading the story, constantly going back and forth made me want to jump to the very end and find out what happens. It became suspenseful because on one page you would be reading about how bad things were and then all of a sudden she was with her new mama and things were great. Its as if there is a part of you that wants things to finally just be good for Ellen and by jumping back and forth it makes you question what the out come will be. Finally in the end when the two story lines meet again there is still this thought in the back of your mind that wonders if something wrong will happen again. By the end I am not completely sure if I can finally smile and say she will be all right, as a result of the constant change back and forth. By using this structure I think Gibbons helps to create an uncertainty in her reader. It almost parallels the uncertainty that Ellen is having as well. By making this choice Gibbons gives her reader a chance to doubt Ellen’s future. We can do nothing else but feel for her as she goes through rough times and seems to take it without any emotion.
Throughout the story many of us catch Ellen’s eye but the one that stays constant throughout is her only friend Starletta. She a bit younger than Ellen and comes from a "colored" family. Starletta is a quiet girl according to Ellen but when Ellen is having problems with her father it is Sarletta and her family that take her in. Set in a time when colored people were still looked down on Ellen thought she should feel superior to her good-hearted friend. She knew nothing except for the way people in society had acted like since she was born and that was white were above colored. I think she took a big step to even befriend Starletta at that time but there were still those questions coming from people in her own family. She lives in a small house with weeds that grow up from the ground and out the wooden floor along with an outdoor bathroom, something Ellen could not understand. Ellen feels that she is much smarter than her but she thinks that Starletta is able to have more fun. It is Starletta that somewhat inspires Ellen to change, along with her trying to leave her past. Ellen doesn’t want to be forgotten and if her only friend didn’t remember her than who would. In the end Ellen through her child-like eyes looks through and beyond the color of skin and loves Starletta for who she is.
Julia and Roy are very important characters as well. They serve to show Ellen that there are people who care about her and truly love her. Julia is an art teacher at the school Ellen attends, so when the teachers find a bruise on Ellen and find out that she is being abused it is Julia that welcomes her into her home. Julia further inspires Ellen to her artwork. Being a child of the sixties Julia brings that sense of love and peace to Ellen’s complicated life. Ellen also fills in the missing space that is present in Julia and Roy’s life. They always wanted a child and Ellen fits right in, but soon enough is taken away from them and placed into the hands of her mama’s mama.
Her mama’s mama was a very wealthy old women and she despised Ellen’s father. Ellen initially thinks that moving in with her would be great because she has a lot of money and she could spend it on Ellen. She also thinks that maybe she will get to know her grandma better, but soon enough that is out of the question when she finds herself working out in the fields with the slaves. This experience sparks a change in the way Ellen looked at colored people because when she was out in those fields it didn’t matter what color she was. Out there she meets Mavis. Mavis is the group leader so to speak. She reinforces the idea in Ellen that she resembled her mother a lot and got to learn about her moms’ childhood. Unfortunately her grandma thought of Ellen as bad as she did her father and would do almost anything to torture her. She claimed that Ellen had her fathers eyes and that reminded her of him. Ellen cared for her grandmother while she was sick, but deep down she wanted her to die, not because Ellen was a bad person but mostly because her mama’s mama was bad. Ellen didn’t want to be blamed for a second death, so when she stopped breathing Ellen made her up with her best hat and covered her bed with flowers in hope that it might help her in her after life, because she needed it.
The voice of Ellen in this section is great. The way Gibbons helps us to understand her intentions and a small cry out for forgiveness. It is in this section that we are introduced to God and Ellen trying to prove to him that she was not at fault with her mothers’ death. On the page it is just so funny.
"I found her Sunday hat she never wore and tilted it on her head the way a live women might pop a hat on to ride to town in. Then the best part I will always be proud of was the nice frame I made all around her body. I put all the artificial flowers I could find from all those show jars around her end to end so she looked set off like a picture. A still life you might say."
In trying to make something nice she insults everyone around. Gibbons nails it because again that is what a child would do, especially Ellen. Children always have different intentions. She felt that maybe if she handled her grandmothers death well that Jesus and everyone would for give her for what happened to her mother. That is the worst part, that she actually was cornered into feeling guilt for something she had nothing to do with. She was just a child.
Soon after that she is moved over to her aunt and cousin’s house. There she had to deal with the idea that she would always be second best and never live up the ideals of aunt Nadine. Dora the spoiled brat of a cousin she had felt it was her job to make Ellen feel increasingly uncomfortable and small, but Ellen with her sense of humor accepted it and made the best of the situation. She had her own plans in mind. She saw a woman at church and decided that she would be a good mama. It was only a matter of time. She planned at the New Year to have a new start, one that she could be happy with. Finally on Christmas aunt Nadine throws Ellen out, so she finds out where the lady from church lived and was on her way.
A very interesting story line that I think says a lot about the writer and even more about people who need someone is Ellen’s interaction with God. So far my experience reading southern writers is that the power of God makes his way into a lot of writing. I especially liked it in this story. After all the shit Ellen has to go through the last person she turns to is God. How many children do you know that turn to God at such a young age? Most of them gain their identity from their parents but when little Ellen is faced with constant disappointment she turns to God. Trying to prove herself and gain a sense of being "even". She just wants to start all over with that chance of having something similar to a family and she fills if she proves to God that she is worthy that everything bad will stop. I wonder what Gibbons is trying to say. I feel that having faith and belief in someone like God is very important. Believing allows you to feel like someone is there when in all actuality everything is going to shit. It is very important for Ellen to have that in her life. It helps her subconsciously to become a person that she is happy with in the end.
Ellen from the opening of the book just wants a family. A mother and a father and if one couldn’t be there, then one parent that could cover both roles. Instead she is forced in and out of different homes with more disappointment each time. I assume if Kaye Gibbons wanted to tell this story of her experiences and make it one big tearjerker she could easily do it. There would be one thing missing though and that would be the voice of the child. By allowing Ellen to be this tough little girl that doesn’t cry, except for the time her mama’s mama slaps her, helps to create a different dynamic. One that allows you to laugh and cry at the same time. You want Ellen to have that family and be happy and not witness all this disappointment and loneliness. By having Ellen be that tough little girl that does, thinks, and says outrageous things makes it easier to read a story about neglect and lost-childhood. It mixes in a couple important laughs and allows you to feel for this child more and more.
In ending Ellen Foster talks about racism, child abuse, foster care, and many other subjects relating to human experiences. It takes you places through a child’s eyes that are every child’s worst nightmare. It takes a child that feels she should be superior to her only colored friend and makes her see equality, most importantly it takes a lonely child and gives her the love and affection of a parent, a "foster" parent and helps to make Ellen Foster the great coming of age novel that it is.
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