The title character of Ellen Foster is a headstrong eleven-year-old girl who suffers much abuse in her young life. She is sexually abused by her alcoholic father, and, as he is unemployed and very seldom at home, she must adopt all household responsibilities, such as paying bills, shopping, and cooking. Ellen adopts these duties without complaint, though she realizes that most children have loving parents that do take care of them. Shortly after her mother commits suicide, Ellen can no longer stand her father's incessant sexual and psychological abuse. She knows she deserves a loving home and family and first tries to stay with her aunt Betsy, who, after Ellen stays for the weekend, tells her that the visit was only meant to be temporary.
At school, Ellen's teacher asks her how she had gotten the bruise on her arm. Ellen is not at all reluctant to tell her that it was her father who put it there, and, after a brief conference, the teachers decide that Ellen will live with Julia, her art teacher. Ellen's short but happy stay with Julia comes to an abrupt end when her wealthy but cruel grandmother wins custody of her in court. Ellen is extraordinarily precocious and understands that her grandmother's cruelty is a means to get revenge on her father, whom her grandmother despises. Ellen's stay with her grandmother highlights her acute self-awareness and her will to survive despite the worst odds. Her grandmother is constantly reminding Ellen of how much she is like her evil father, which scares Ellen into questioning her body and her character. Very seldom does her grandmother speak to her, except to berate her about her likeness to her father.
Almost immediately, Ellen's grandmother puts her to work rowing the cotton fields that she owns. It is there that she meets Mavis, a kind-hearted, black field worker who helps her to learn that it is character, not skin color, that is important in a person. Ellen also learns this lesson from Starletta, her black best friend. However cruel her grandmother is, Ellen still cares for her with the utmost tenderness when she falls ill. Ellen is unusually forgiving and loving, especially considering that she has suffered a life absent of love, and hopes that her grandmother will be welcomed into heaven despite her cruelty.
After her grandmother's death, she is sent to live with her aunt Nadine and her cousin Dora. She is miserable with them, as they are both utterly false. They pretend to be wealthy and successful, and they are condescending to Ellen for coming from an impoverished background. She cannot tolerate their falsity, as she is an honest, matter-of-fact character. Never once does she sugarcoat her story to make herself seem better than she is; she simply says what she sees and what she feels. Throughout her hardship, she is determined to find a home and family to love her and is confident that, somewhere, one exists.
Upon first sight of her new mama, Ellen knows she will be the one to take her in and love her, which she eventually does when, after being kicked out of Nadine's house on Christmas day, she bravely walks across town, knocks on her new mama's door, and asks her if she will care for her. In return, Ellen offers her one hundred and sixty six dollars—her life savings—which new mama refuses. This scene denotes Ellen's inherent sense of fairness and equanimity, which is evident also when she invites Starletta to stay over her house for the weekend, as she feels she must repay her for her kindness. Overall, Ellen is a remarkably precocious, determined, and intelligent girl far wiser and wittier than the average eleven year old.
Ellen's black best friend begins as a somewhat immature, though very sweet young girl who enjoys playing with dolls and other childish toys. Throughout the course of the novel, she undergoes a dramatic change, in both body and mind, as she enters into a more mature adolescence from her prolonged phase of childhood. This metamorphosis is marked at the close of the novel, when, having abandoned toys for boys, she develops a serious infatuation for a white boy from school. She knows that because of her race, she will not be able to date a white boy, but she understands that a white man can provide her with a more financially promising future.
However, Starletta's crush on a white boy marks more than the beginning of her adolescence. More importantly, it speaks to Starletta's bravery and her bold attitude in daring to do something that is not only taboo, but socially impossible. During the 1970s, in Ellen's southern community, it was completely unacceptable for a black child to be friends with a white person. Thus, her friendship with Ellen is, in itself, an act of bravery. Starletta also dares to break a social rule when accepting Ellen's offer to sleep over her house, and Ellen delights in their rebellion.
It is during her sleepover at Ellen's that Starletta is at her most gracious. She is rather quiet, and, as Ellen reports, does not like to talk very much, though it seems that she and Ellen share an unspeakable closeness. This closeness is strengthened as Ellen confesses to her the racial prejudices she once harbored. Starletta gives little reaction, but she accepts Ellen's apology and, in her quiet, seems to forgive Ellen for her former prejudices. This scene illuminates Starletta's profound sense of understanding. She does not argue with Ellen or even seem hurt at her confession. Instead, she simply and silently overlooks Ellen's former biases, just as she overlooks the boundaries placed on her by discriminatory racial and social rules.
Ellen's grandmother is a wealthy, miserly woman who is unfailingly bitter and vengeful. Her only desires seem to be power, money, and revenge. Although she has seldom spoken to Ellen in her life, she battles for her custody, as she wants to get back at Ellen's father for the harm he has caused her daughter, Ellen's mother. While Ellen had still been living with her father, she had hired Rudolph and Ellis, Ellen's uncles on her father's side, to spy on them and report back to her on their activities. She is exceptionally underhanded and will do anything to get revenge on Ellen's father for his abuse of her daughter, though she does not seem to care that Ellen must suffer too. During Ellen's stay, she is vicious and cruel, constantly berating Ellen for the likeness she bears to her father, which, the novel's other characters imply, is not true. Mama's mama is evil to the core, and it seems the only satisfaction she gets is from treating Ellen like a servant, as she treats the black workers who labor on the acres of land she owns. Indeed, she does send Ellen to work the fields too.
Despite her cruelty, she is undoubtedly pathetic. This aspect of her character is especially clear as she becomes weakened by age and illness. She is pitiful prior to her illness because she can only garner enjoyment from the misery she causes others, and she is pathetic afterward because she must rely on Ellen to care for her, whom she has treated as a slave and not as her own granddaughter. However weak, she clings to her vendetta against Ellen's father and continues to abuse Ellen emotionally. Her emotional abuse of Ellen is so severe that she scars her permanently, causing her to dig into her psyche and question her self- worth. She is particularly abusive when she demands that Ellen not shed another tear for her father's death. This demand illustrates her general revulsion at the display of emotion, as it seems she has been sucked dry of love and caring.