Sunday, December 28, 2008

Southern Humor and Heartbreak

“Ellen Foster” was first published in 1987. It was Kaye Gibbons’ first novel for which she won critical acclaim and a special citation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. “Ellen Foster” is the story of Ellen, the narrator and heroine of this funny, engaging but heart wrenching novel.

Ellen is an eleven year old girl who had the bad luck of being born into a family with a “Big wind-up toy of a man” for a father and a mother whose “skin looked tired of holding in her weak self.” The story is one told with the stark honesty of an eleven year old. Ellen is not always sure what is happening to her but she knows that there is something very wrong with her life. The voice is so authentic that you are sure you are listening to an eleven year old child who lives somewhere in the south in a very bad situation. Ellen is wise for an eleven year old but when she is trying to figure out something she doesn’t understand you can’t help laughing out loud.

Unfortunately there is not a lot to laugh about in this story. It is a moving story of a child, abused and left to her own resources. But one thing Ellen has is resources. When both her sorry parents die she finds herself at the mercy of her relatives, who are mean, petty and abusive. How much can one child take? Ellen’s sense of humor makes reading this heart wrenching story so easy. You really care about this character and want her to not only survive but to be happy. It is fun watching just how Ellen achieves this end. With this end comes Ellen's understanding of racism and the role it plays in the life of a child.

The author did a wonderful job of disappearing into the voice of the young narrator, so believably that you never doubt Ellen’s reliability. The determination of Ellen to leave her past life behind and find one that meets her approval is a story told with humor, honesty, and spunk, by a character that you won’t easily forget.

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