Friday, October 24, 2008

Ellen Foster

When I was eleven years old, and in sixth grade, I remember getting a bloody nose during school. While I was holding the tissue to my hemorrhaging nostril, a mean-spirited girl, whose mom had already picked a fight with my mom because I didn't invite her daughter to my birthday party that summer, commented loudly to the rest of the class, "I bet she was picking her nose!"

I still remember the humiliation I felt as several people started chanting "nose picker! nose picker!" Humiliation remembered, 22 years later, even though mixed with that memory is a sixth grade full of good friends, a wonderful home to go home to, and eleven, equally drama-free years preceding it.

This memory of mine was triggered last night after reading this short book (only 144 pages) and I was left wondering what Ellen Foster would categorize as "humiliating" from her eleventh year, twenty-two years later.

Eleven year-old Ellen's entire family existence is the very definition of dysfunctional. Alcoholic and mean spirited father. Helpless, sad and sick mother. Cruel, angry and spiteful grandmother. Ellen finds a way to survive in each and every situation she unwillingly finds herself in, without any friends to lean on for support except a young black girl named Starletta.

Confused by the racial segregation and stereotypes that, while no longer enforced by law, are still enforced by popular belief in the South, Ellen observes a loving family in action while spending time with Starletta's family, her hippie art teacher and husband and later with the woman she calls her "new mama" - a foster parent.

Even though it created some frustration for me when normal details, like the names of the story's supporting characters, were left out, the author, Kaye Gibbons, never veers from her narrator's eleven year-old perspective. We readers are never privy to the background story of her parent's eroded marriage, the subsequent abuse and health problems, or what Ellen's world looked outside of Ellen's own view. It is Ellen's story, and she tells what matters to her - holes and all.

We stand by and watch Ellen going to more than her fair share of funerals, being made of fun of for her dirty clothes, uncombed hair, and crazy father who shows up for school drunk, holding money and shouting, "I'll pay you for it!", being forced by the court to go live with her grandmother who makes her go work the fields picking rows of cotton alongside her other "niggers" and then, finally cheer for her as she learns what it means to be loved and safe.

Honest, tragic, triumphant and heartbreaking - if only Ellen knew that she was supposed to be heartbroken, this is a fantastic glimpse into a young girl's horrifying world and how she fights to find a better one.

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