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Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
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Feb 23, 2010

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The deck is stacked against Ellen Foster, an 11-year-old girl. Her father is an abusive alcoholic, her mother dies and then her father, and her grandmother and aunts verbally and otherwise abuse her. The family members are not merely insensitive but actually full of hatred and abuse. Ellen strives to survive and to find a surrogate family that will give her some measure of love.

Tear jerker? Well, that’s the risk, isn’t it, pulpy sentimentality? In 1913, Eleanor H. Porter published a novel called Pollyanna. Guess what? Pollyana was also 11-years-old, also orphaned, and also placed with a mean aunt. Pollyanna copes by always finding a bright side, something to be glad about. She converts the whole town in the end, lending her name to the feeling of saccharine sweetness you have when you say, “Don’t be a Pollyanna.” They still make movies and other spinoffs based on Pollyanna.

However, in spite of the two similarities pointed out, Ellen Foster is not a Pollyanna. Her circumstances push us to feel sorry for her, but as she tells the story, there are very few places where she herself seems to be pitching her story for our tears. Instead, she constantly shows strength and determination. You may not believe it is possible in the face of such an awful life, but her voice carries you along, sentence by sentence toward some kind of willingness to believe in her and therefore in the reality of her truly awful father, aunts, cousin, and grandmother.

There is a different but related body of fiction about children whose strong qualities not only permit survival but material success or, more subtly, a kind of moral success. I think we are supposed to feel that Horatio Alger’s boys succeeded because of their pluck and perseverance in the world of money; we admire their determination and we are led to believe in the American dream: only you are responsible for your failure, only you can make yourself successful and only you get credit for the success to achieve. Your success, in other words, is not a result of birth, family, membership in the Skull & Bones or race. This of course is nonsense and Kay Gibbons, though presenting a remarkable child with great suffering and great strengths, does not forget that others may be worse off, in particular Ellen’s African-American friend Starletta.

All right, Ellen Foster is neither a Pollyanna, too sweet by far, nor a Horatio Alger child, an exemplar for the ethic that ignores social disadvantage. But did Gibbons produce a sentimentalized story, a tear-jerker, illegitimately wringing emotion out of us? I think she dodges that criticism–barely. She dodges it because Ellen’s voice and character are strong. Ellen falls back on anger rather than self-pity. I say Gibbons only barely dodges the charge of sentimentality because she puts Ellen into so many situations that by themselves invite you to feel for sorry for her, regardless of her character, her voice, the quality of writing. Not danger, which might be overcome, but lack of love. Gibbons pulls out of this potential bog because Ellen herself moves on, seeks revenge or keeps her eye on her goal. In the same way, Ellen's matter-of-fact presentation, combined with her intelligence fends off the claim of easy melodrama.

If this book, a short 125 pages, were two or three times the length, I think I would find the unmitigated evil and selfishness of the bad guys just too much, because in a longer book there would be room for three-dimensional depictions of Ellen’s family. Correspondingly, I’d feel that there were too many scenes of unmitigated suffering for Ellen, for a similar reasons. Given that the author chose to write a short book, I say it is a wonder.

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