Posts Tagged ‘Kaye Gibbons’

ellen foster

Kaye Gibbons is not a writer I have read before, but last year I spotted two of her books in a second-hand book shop and took a chance. Ellen Foster; was her first novel and it tells the poignant story of a precocious eleven-year-old. Hers, is an unforgettable voice, and through her eyes we witness a world of broken family, neglect and poverty, as she experiences casual violence and fear, things no child her age should live with.

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he’d be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something’s the matter with my daddy.”

Ellen is the child of a sick mother and a drunk, abusive father. Ellen is around nine as the novel opens, though the story is told from a distance of a couple of years later, when Ellen’s life has changed, and she is living with her ‘new mama’. The family she was born into, live in the rural south, it is somewhere around the late seventies – though I often felt it could have easily been twenty years earlier. There is still a lot of unofficial white/black segregation in the community. Though Ellen’s father has a group of black, drinking buddies, Ellen has been brought up believing she mustn’t stay overnight at her friend Starletta’s house or eat or drink anything while there. Starletta’s family are poor but kind, and it becomes a place where Ellen seeks refuge, a place where she can feel safe.

“I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think. You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.”

Ellen’s mother is fragile, she cannot cope with the world in which she lives, and so one day as Ellen lays resting next to her she overdoses. With her mother dead, Ellen finds it wiser to stay as far away from her father as she can. Deciding she doesn’t want to live with him any longer she packs a bag and calls her Aunt Betsy and invites herself to stay. Betsy is one of Ellen’s mother’s sisters. At the end of a happy weekend with Betsy, it is revealed that Betsy had only expected her niece to stay for the weekend – not for good! Ellen is on her own again, forced to return to her father.

When the school spot bruises on Ellen’s body, she embarks on a series of temporary solutions. First, she stays with one of her school teachers, Julia and her husband Roy. Here Ellen feels cared for although she doesn’t always understand their way of life. Her time with Julia is short – and her grandmother – her ‘mama’s mama’ is awarded custody.

Mama’s Mama is a truly awful woman, mean and desperately cruel – she hates Ellen’s father and takes her hatred out on Ellen in the most dreadful ways. Ellen is tough little cookie, when she is put to work in the cotton fields under the scorching summer sun, she gets on with it, making friends with her fellow workers. When her vile grandmother falls ill, she takes care of her, the best way this poor, almost broken child can.

“She died in spite of me.
I tried to make her keep breathing and she stopped I blew air in her like I should have. She did not live but at least I did not slip into a dream beside her. I just stood by the bed and looked at her dead with her face pleasant now to trick Jesus. I said to her the score is two to one now. I might have my mama’s soul to worry over but you’ve got my daddy’s and your own. The score is two to one but I win.
I stood over her hoping she was the last dead person I knew for a while.”

Next to take Ellen in, is Aunt Nadine, her mother’s other sister – who Betsy has been fighting with since the funeral. Life at Nadine’s house is not happy either. Nadine’s daughter Dora is a spoilt, spiteful little madame who instantly makes Ellen feel out of place. On Christmas day things come to a head, and Ellen walks out – heading for the house of the lady with the nice calm, well behaved children who she had spotted at church. She had heard the woman referred to as the Foster woman who will take anyone in. So, Ellen knocks at her door on Christmas day – and is taken in. Ellen has misunderstood the Foster part – assuming it is her new mama’s name she starts calling herself Ellen Foster.

Ellen finds life at her new mama’s house to suit her just right, there’s a pony to ride and a large family who are immediately welcoming. From the way this novel is structured we know from the beginning that Ellen has a new life – a life she is happy in finally. I think it is that knowledge that makes this novel easier to read, as the reader knows that we won’t be left feeling hopeless at the end. In fact, there is a lot that is joyful and life affirming in how Ellen emerges at the end of this slight novel, and I had high hopes for her going forward. She reconnects with her friend Starletta, making the necessary readjustments to her racial attitudes.

The other novel I have by Kaye Gibbons is Sights Unseen – which I believe has a similarly rural setting. Based upon this powerful little novel, I have reason to look forward to it.

kaye gibbons

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