21 October 2010

Kaye Gibbons: Ellen Foster (1987)

Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina, and lives in Raleigh in the same state. She published eight books between 1987 and 2005, although she has not published one since.

She suffers from bipolar disorder, and in 2008 was convicted of prescription fraud.

Ellen Foster is set in the mid- to late seventies. It is Gibbons's first novel, and she calls it 'emotionally autobiographical'. Many of the events in this first person narrative also coincide with events in Gibbons's own life: for instance, the suicide of her mother when the daughter was ten, the father who drank himself to death not long afterward, and Ellen's various changes of address within a very short period.

As well as tracing the story of Ellen's life after she decides to leave her abusive, incompetent and alcoholic father - which, among other things, involves staying with essentially uncaring aunts and an insane maternal grandmother - the concern is with Ellen's rapid psychological maturity.

Ellen Foster was originally conceived as a poem about an African American, and the young black girl Starletta becomes Ellen's best friend in the novel. In spite of this, at the beginning of the book, Ellen believes old white superstitions about blacks, that, for instance, she might change color if she shares her cup with a black person, so - even though very hungry - she refuses to accept a meal with Starletta's family. It takes the stability of Ellen's new (foster) family - after which she mistakenly changes her name - for her to realize that her love for Starletta has no bounds: 'I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it. It seems like the decent thing to do.' In spite of her ordeals, she realizes that Starletta has 'the hardest row to hoe'.

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