Tuesday, October 23, 2007

ELLEN FOSTER by Kaye Gibbons

The Book: Kaye Gibbons, ELLEN FOSTER. Jonathan Cape, 1988 (first U.S. edition). Very good book in very good DJ; pages of book show slight age-related browning. Inscribed: "For Ellen -- All Best Wishes. Kaye Gibbons, Sept. 13, 1995."
First read: 1988
Owned since: 1993 (best guess)

I found this British first edition in a used bookstore, but I don't remember where. I snapped it up because it's one of my favorite books, and I've given away more than one paperback copy. Ms. Gibbons signed this book for me at an event at Olsson's bookstore in downtown Washington, when she was touring for Sights Unseen.

At 146 pages, Ellen Foster is as small and perfect as a teardrop. It's a first novel and is still my favorite of Gibbons's books, although most of her later work is quite good. Gibbons wrote a sequel to Ellen Foster last year, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, and I picked it up and wished I hadn't. The urge to revisit beloved characters is strong, but I preferred my own imaginings about what Ellen had gone on to do.

Ellen Foster is the story of her survival of childhood. It begins, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." Ellen's daddy is a wife abuser, and Ellen's mother is a fragile creature who dies when Ellen is only ten. Ellen gets bounced to and from her evil aunt's house until she finds sanctuary with a local woman who takes in foster children. The foster family, people call them, so Ellen rechristens herself Foster.

It sounds sentimental, but like all great literature, it isn't; it's simple, terrible and true. Ellen, who narrates the story, isn't telling us the story for sympathy; she's just talking to us, the way any 11-year-old would. It's absolutely sincere -- a gamble so few authors are willing to take -- and it pays off.

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