Ellen Foster Study Guide

Ellen Foster

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster is the story of the titular girl, Ellen, whose life in the home of her abusive and predatory father is followed by a string of terrible living situations within her dysfunctional family. Shunted from home to home, Ellen struggles with her history of sexual, corporal, and emotional abuse as her family dies around her from alcoholism, old age, and disease. Eventually she overcomes her difficulties and finds solace in a foster home.

  • Ellen Foster is the 10-year-old protagonist of the novel. She suffers physical abuse and psychological abuse from her alcoholic father and after her mother commits suicide, is tossed around from one household to another. Throughout her journey, Ellen is hopeful that she will someday find a nice and loving home, which she eventually does.
  • Daddy is the novel's antagonist. He abuses his daughter, Ellen, physically, sexually and psychologically. He suffers from alcoholism, and holds no job other than selling liquor and eventually drinks himself to death.
  • Mama , Ellen's mother, has suffered from poor health, suffering from "romantic [rheumatic] fever" since childhood. When she is at last at the hospital, she is so severely depressed as a result of her husband's cruelty and her illness that she commits suicide by overdosing on prescription medication.
  • Starletta is Ellen's black best friend, who helps Ellen to realize that skin color makes no difference in the quality of the person. She lives with her mother and father in a ramshackle cabin with no indoor toilet and they often provide Ellen with refuge from her father. Gradually, Starletta transforms from an unsophisticated child into a mature young woman, and she develops a crush on a white boy from school.
  • New Mama , Ellen's foster mother, is everything for which Ellen could have hoped. New Mama is kind, caring, nurturing, always has enough money to pay for groceries, and has plenty of love to give Ellen and the other children she fosters.
  • Mama's Mama , Ellen's grandmother on her mother's side, is old and miserly and treats Ellen with cruelty, as she strongly dislikes Ellen's father and seeks vengeance on him through Ellen. After winning custody of Ellen in court, she immediately sends her to work the fields with the black field hands on the farms she owns in the scorching summer heat. At the end of the summer, she dies of illness, even after Ellen has taken extraordinary good care of her.
  • Mavis , a kind field worker on Ellen's grandmother's farm, takes Ellen under her wing and teaches her how to row the land and how to stay cool in the unbearable summer heat. She tells Ellen of how she had known her mother as a child and says that Ellen looks very much like her. Mavis has a large, happy family that Ellen admires and wants to emulate.
  • Nadine , Ellen's aunt on her mother's side, is false and pretentious and lies to herself that she is wealthy and successful to gain confidence. She is forced to take Ellen for a short period of time, though she eventually kicks her out of the house on Christmas Day. She dotes on her daughter Dora and treats Dora like a small child, although she is the same age as Ellen.
  • Dora , Ellen's cousin and daughter of Nadine, is a sheltered, spoiled brat who gets everything she wants when she wants it. She is a chronic pants-wetter, though she is the same age as Ellen.
  • Julia , Ellen's grade school art teacher who takes her temporarily after another teacher learns that she is being abused at home. Julia is a hippie raised in the Northeast, who has migrated to the South after college with her husband, Roy. She is very liberal and encourages Ellen in her artistic endeavors.
  • Roy , Julia's husband, is a progressively minded hippie who keeps an organic garden that he fertilizes with chicken manure, with which Ellen is fascinated. He bakes Ellen a lovely cake for her birthday and does not mind taking care of other household chores typically performed by a woman.
  • Rudolph&Ellis - Ellen's uncles on her father's side, who agree to spy on Ellen and her father for Ellen's grandmother. They make inaccurate reports that Ellen is wild and a troublemaker and are compensated by Ellen's grandmother with large sums of money, some of which she instructs them to give to Ellen and her father for the bare necessities.
  • Stella , Ellen's foster sister at her new mama's house, is a big flirt and sits at the back of the bus with the boys on the way to school. As a seventh grader, she is a mother to a fatherless baby, Roger, and is the youngest mother Ellen has ever known.
  • Roger is Stella's baby son who likes to crawl into Ellen's room and chew on objects he finds on the floor.
  • Betsy is Ellen's aunt on her mother's side who allows Ellen to stay with her for a weekend and finds it funny when Ellen had misunderstood that she would be staying permanently. She is petty and bickers with Nadine, her sister, when their mother dies.
  • Dolphin is the horse Ellen rides and cares for at her new mama's house.
  • Jo Jo is Ellen's new foster sister who loves to dance to music with no words.

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