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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapters 3–4

Chapters 1–2

Chapter 5

Summary: Chapter 3

For her mother's funeral, Ellen is forced to wear a red-checked suit that once belonged to her cousin, Dora, whose mother, Nadine, has taken it upon herself to organize the funeral. Ellen's father asks her if she plans to tell anyone about how he made no attempts to save her mother from overdosing on her medication. Ellen is not certain that he has committed a crime, though she is sure that he has committed a terrible sin. In the car on the way to the graveyard, Ellen demands that she sit next to the window, so that she may breathe fresh air and get out quickly if necessary.

Ellen rolls down the car window and sticks her head outside of it to get some relief from Nadine's overpowering perfume. Nadine flirts with the undertaker who drives the car. Looking out the window, Ellen admires the autumn foliage and thinks that fall is the best time of the year because both the leaves and the people are changing and readying themselves for a new season. Dora, who is the same age as Ellen, wets herself and soaks the seat of the car. Ellen reports that Dora wets herself regularly, as often as once or twice a day, though Nadine accuses Ellen of being the culprit. Dora asks if the undertaker will stop the car on the way to the funeral so that she may get a snack.

Ellen wakes in her new home and wonders what she should do with her day. She smells the biscuits her new mama has been baking in the oven and decides that she will take her horse, Dolphin, for a ride in the pasture. At the breakfast table, Ellen holds her hands over the hot biscuits to warm them, and her new mama gently informs her that she is being rude. Ellen takes two breakfast biscuits with her after she finishes breakfast, one for herself for lunch and one to feed to Dolphin. Dolphin does not belong solely to Ellen, though she loves him as if she were his only caretaker. Since she has been living with her new mama and her new sisters and brother, Ellen has learned to share all of her possessions.

Summary: Chapter 4

The funeral train passes through a "colored town" to get to the church. When they have crossed the town's border, Nadine is relieved and unlocks her car door. As they drive by rows of pretty houses with neatly groomed lawns, Ellen admires them and contemplates taking home a garden fountain that she finds particularly alluring.

At the church, there are far more people than Ellen actually knows. She sees her black friend Starletta sitting with her mother and father. Ellen wishes that she could go and sit with them, but she must stay with her own family. Starletta, Ellen reports, eats dirt and chomps on clay. Once, when Ellen had tried to eat dirt, her father had slapped her.

Sitting in the pew and listening to the preacher's sermon, Ellen does not want to look at her mother lying in the casket and is continually disturbed by the thought of seeing her dead. She notes that the preacher avoids mentioning her mother's suicide, as it is a sin, but skips right to the rewards of heaven.

Ellen's mama's mama, her grandmother, is sitting near her and leans over to call her father a "bastard." Ellen reports that her mama's mama is fairly wealthy, though she gives her nothing and acts as if she doesn't even know Ellen. Her mama's mama has a reputation for being insane, and, during the funeral service, she curses Ellen's father with the utmost rage and vehemence and eventually storms out of the church.

It is raining at the graveyard, and the sight of her dead mother again disturbs Ellen. She questions why she must watch her mother's body disappear before her own eyes, like magic, as she has already seen more than enough at the church. After the burial, numerous people approach Ellen and offer their consolation. One gives her a dollar. The undertaker, or the "smiling man," as Ellen calls him, warmly offers her a ride home.

At her new home, Ellen no longer has to "worry about snakes," as Dolphin will scare them away for her. She spreads a blanket on the ground and makes a little camp for herself and the pony. Having forgotten her book, all there is for her to do is lie back and watch the trees rock back and forth, lulling her to sleep.

Analysis

The issue of race relations and racial tension becomes more evident in Chapter 4, when the funeral train passes through a "colored town" on its way to the church. Nadine, Ellen's aunt on her deceased mother's side, is so fraught by their presence in a "colored town" that she locks her car door, unlocking it only when they have driven past its borders into a town that is distinctly wealthier and distinctly whiter. Ellen reports her aunt's racist neurosis matter-of-factly and does not express her own feelings about race, though one can infer that she is far less narrow-minded than her aunt.

While driving through the wealthy town, Ellen dreamily considers stealing a garden fountain she sees on someone's lawn, not because she is a thief, but because she wants a piece of that fortune and happiness for herself, a piece of it to take home with her and cherish. Understandably, Ellen wants the kind of life that she imagines the families who inhabit these houses live routinely: a life of love and happiness, which she knows she deserves. Driving past the pretty houses and neatly groomed lawns only reinforces Ellen's hope that someday, she will live with a loving family who can appreciate her for who she is.

It is raining at the graveyard during her mother's burial, an allusion to the "storm" Ellen prophetically mentioned in Chapter 1. Throughout the book, nature, weather, and water, in particular, will develop into recurring references and symbols. In this case, the "storm" is representative of sorrow and pain, and, as it does in Chapter 1, it also represents Ellen's inability to control the sequence of nightmarish events to come. The rain that falls during her mother's burial is only the beginning of the storm that Ellen must weather for the next two years, as she will be passed from one home to the next, until the storm eventually passes with the meeting of her new mama. Nature is also called upon as a symbol when Ellen mentions that, in her new home, she no longer has to "worry about snakes," which, of course, represent the fear and suffering she underwent in her old home.

Ellen is noticeably disturbed by the sight of her dead mother, especially as she is being lowered into the ground at the graveyard. "Why do I need to watch anymore," asks Ellen, consoling herself with the explanation that "it is all done with lights said the magician." This "magician" is a character who appears suddenly during her mother's burial and will reappear with the numerous other deaths and funeral services she must attend in the future. Ellen calls upon this imaginary magician because, presumably, she cannot and does not fully comprehend the absolute finality of death. Although Ellen does not speak specifically of crying about her mother's death, she expresses definite sorrow in not wanting to see her lowered into the ground. The magician helps her cope with her grief, as his use of "lights" and magic make her mother's death more like a trick than a reality. Ellen may believe that, like a magician's disappearing trick, her mother will soon reappear and is comforted by her faith in her mother's return from the grave to the earth.

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