"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." So begins the tale of Ellen Foster, the brave and engaging heroine of Kaye Gibbons's first novel, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Wise, funny, affectionate, and true, Ellen Foster is, as Walker Percy called it, "The real thing. Which is to say, a lovely, sometimes heartwrenching novel...[Ellen Foster] is as much a part of the backwoods South as a Faulkner character- and a good deal more endearing."
Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster opens with one of the most memorably shocking first lines I've ever read, and continues to astonish with its ability to pack so much meaning and emotion into such concise sentences. Narrated by 12-year-old Ellen Foster, a poor and uneducated Southerner, Ellen Foster follows its courageous and charismatic heroine's journey from her mother's suicide through her father's alcoholism and abuse to a loving foster family.
In the tradition of Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Ellen Foster narrates the events and emotions of adulthood through the practicality and candor of child’s perspective. Ellen Foster is the rare coming of age tale in which the protagonist has come of age long before her age implies and long before the story begins. She tackles issues of family, abuse, and racism with the wisdom of rapidly fading innocence and the hardened gaze of the prematurely matured. Yet, underneath the harshly unconcealed realities of Ellen’s past gleams the unrelenting hope and ultimately fulfilled promise of a better future.
From the first line, the reader cannot help but become immersed and invested in the unfolding events, as well as captivated by the indomitable voice of one who refuses to be silent or to be less despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances and liltingly inaccurate grammar. Ellen Foster is as deep in resonating power as it is short in length, and the emotions that it evokes echo and linger long after the last page.
Reviewed by Miranda Wojciechowski
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/17/2012