Monday, October 6, 2008

Book Review: Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons

There's one major disappointment with this book: the fact that I've had this on my bookshelf for almost 11 years, and I just got around to reading it.

Oprah chose Ellen Foster as her Book Club pick on October 27, 1997. I received this as a Christmas gift that same year but for some unknown reason - another more compelling book, perhaps - I never read it. Sure, I glanced at it from time to time, but mostly as it was packed, unpacked, and repacked - and then packed, unpacked and repacked again - and still again a third time, as we moved to three separate residences in 11 years.

Eleven is also the age of Ellen, the protagonist of this exquisite novel. Orphaned, Ellen herself is sent packing after the death of her abusive father (which follows her mother's suicide). The novel deals with Ellen's quest for home in every sense of the word - shelter, yes, but also a place of belonging and acceptance. From

Ellen's first eleven years are a long fight for survival. Her invalid, abused mother commits suicide, leaving Ellen to the mercies of her daddy, a drunken brute who either ignores her or makes sexual threats. Through her intelligence and grit Ellen is able to provide for herself, but her desperate attempts to create an environment of order and decorum within her nightmarish home are repeatedly foiled by her father. After his death, a judge awards Ellen's custody to her mother's mother, a bitter and vengeful woman who hated her son-in-law for ruining her own daughter's life and who hates the child Ellen for her physical resemblance to him.Against all odds, Ellen never gives up her belief that there is a place for her in the world, a home which will satisfy all her longing for love, acceptance, and order. Her eventual success in finding that home and courageously claiming it as her own is a testimony to her unshakable faith in the possibility of good. She never loses that faith, and she never loses her sense of humor. Ellen Foster, like another American classic, Huckleberry Finn, is for all its high comedy ultimately a serious fable of personal and collective responsibility.

This is a quick read (only 126 pages) and if you have the opportunity to listen to it on audio (as I did), I recommend that version also. Although similar themes have been portrayed in other works, Ellen Foster is an exceptional, compelling and emotional story. As a first novel, this book is a true triumph for the author Kaye Gibbons. As someone who enjoys Southern fiction, I enjoyed this tremendously and look forward to reading more of Kaye Gibbons' work - within the next decade, to be sure.


DemMom said...

I read this... about 10 years ago. Now you've made me want to read it again. Or listen to it, even better!
Oh, off subject, but I watched my first episode of "Mad Men" this weekend. So many people, you included, have raved about it. And I'm told that some of the sets may be the style I'm looking for in decorating my "mid century modern" ranch house!

Wendy said...

Great review, Melissa - If you haven't read A Virtuous Woman by Gibbons yet, I recommend it. I also want to get to more of her novels.