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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapters 1–2

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Chapters 1–2, page 2

page 1 of 3

Summary: Chapter 1

Ellen, now ten years old, reminisces about how when she was little, she would think of various ways to kill her father. Her favorite idea had been of loosing a poisonous spider in his bed and having "two colored boys" lift his body onto a stretcher. But ultimately, Ellen doesn't have to kill her father, as he drinks himself to death a year after the county has removed Ellen from his care, and she affirms that she is better off now that he is dead.

Throughout her internal monologue, which carries through the entirety of the novel, Ellen meshes memories of her miserable past with scenes from her enriched present. In her new home, Ellen is well cared for, with enough food to eat and clean clothes to wear.

Each Tuesday, Ellen sees a school psychologist. When he tells her that she is scared, Ellen refutes his diagnosis, admitting that she once had been scared but is no longer. She remembers the time when she had been frightened, living with her alcoholic father and sickly mother, who, because of her illness, had spent much of her time in the hospital, as she had been weakened by "romantic [rheumatic] fever" as a child. When Ellen's mother does come home from the hospital after having surgery, Ellen's father demands that her mother make him dinner, declaring that he's tired of making it for himself. Ellen scoffs at this, knowing that she's been the one to make all of the meals while her mother has been gone. Ellen is clearly angry with her father, especially for making her mother work when she is weak. All she can do is help her mother in the kitchen and take revenge by spitting on her father's fork.

Ellen's mother cooks dinner despite her ailments, not once complaining that she is too tired or ill. During dinner, her father jokes that that this may be her last supper, and Ellen tries to understand why he is so cruel to her mother. Afterwards, Ellen helps her mother undress and lies in bed beside her.

Later that same night, Ellen's father goes out to buy alcohol. When he returns, he orders Ellen to turn on the television for him and wakes her mother with his shouting. Eventually, he has drunk so much that he is passed out on the bathroom floor. As she does every Saturday, Ellen must shove him awake with her foot, for she refuses to touch him with her hands. She orders him to get out, and he staggers out the door to sleep in his truck. Ellen's mother has witnessed this episode and begins to cry. Ellen comforts her, saying that what she's seen is "no reason to cry." She crawls back into bed with her mother and vows to stay with her until she is breathing regularly. As she lies with her mother, Ellen notes that there is a terrible storm coming and wishes that the lightning would strike her father, though she knows she does not control the weather or "the way the Lord" rules.

In contrast, Ellen's new mama serves delicious food in an orderly manner and never yells at the children. Now, at her new house, Ellen leisurely snacks on candy and thinks about how she will decorate her new, beautiful room. Her new mama has sewed her matching curtains and pillow shams for her bed.

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