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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapter 6

Chapter 5

Chapters 7–8

Summary

Ellen goes over Starletta's house, which Ellen describes as somewhat of a shack—a dirty place with no toilet and no television. However, Ellen hints that Starletta and her family live better than the colored families nearby, who, so she hears, live fifteen people to a house and eat their meals off of music records instead of plates. Whenever Ellen visits Starletta, she waits until she returns home to go to the bathroom. When Ellen arrives, Starletta's mother is cooking dinner at the stove. Ellen thinks to herself that she could never drink after Starletta because she is colored and tries to see the invisible germs that she leaves on the lip of her cup.

Starletta's parents cannot read. Both work as field hands on a cotton plantation, and Starletta's mother sews quilts to make an additional income. Starletta's father, Ellen says, is the only colored man who does not buy alcohol from her father.

Ellen plays with the toys that Starletta has received as Christmas gifts, though she feels she is too old for them. When Starletta's parents invite Ellen to eat with them, Ellen politely refuses, though she wishes to stay and wait until they finish, which she does. After they eat, Starletta's parents give Ellen their Christmas gift, a beautiful sweater that Ellen thinks "does not look colored at all." Ellen is overwhelmed by emotion at their gift and thinks she may cry. In return, she gives them the spoon rest she has bought for them, which Starletta's mother lovingly places atop the stove.

Afterwards, Ellen insists that she must get home. Starletta's father tells her to come back to their house if her father is home. But when Ellen does return home, her father is still gone. She wonders if he is lying in a ditch somewhere, frozen and dead. Whenever her father is not home, Ellen relaxes and watches television. When he is home, she retreats to her room where she stays until he is gone again, or she escapes out the window and goes elsewhere.

Ellen's father is rarely at the house, though she does not know where he stays. On New Year's Eve, however, he throws a party with a "whole pack of colored men," who eat Ellen's food and rifle through her belongings. She hopes they choke and die, even her own father. Her bedroom window is frozen shut, and there is no escaping her father or his friends. One man lewdly comments that Ellen is at the perfect age to marry, saying "you gots to git em when they is still soff when you mashum." Ellen retreats to the closet and hides there until the men either leave or pass out. When she dares to come out, she knows that she must leave quickly before the men rise and try to rape her. Her own father is the one to sexually assault her, calling her by another woman's name, presumably her mother's, though it is not clear exactly what he does to her. Ellen tries to wriggle free of him, and, when he releases her, she runs to Starletta's house in the darkness, wondering all the while "what the world has come to."

Ellen no longer has any clothes to dress herself in because her mama's mama has sent one of her daughters to collect all of Ellen's mother's clothing, claiming that she would "rather some real niggers" have the clothes than those who "drink and carry on like trash." This confuses and frustrates Ellen, as she does not drink and will "not even eat at a colored house." Ellen has also run out of books to read and longs for the end of the Christmas holiday when the bookmobile will again run its regular route through her neighborhood.

There are five foster children at Ellen's new home, all of whom Ellen likes very much. When she returns from her gallop in the woods with Dolphin, Ellen and her new family make a terrarium together. Afterwards, Ellen's new mama washes Ellen's hair, a practice of which Ellen savors every moment. Ellen examines herself in the mirror after her bath and "feels like a stranger in [her] own self."

Analysis

Although Ellen is best friends with Starletta, who is black, she still harbors the racial biases and falsehoods that have been taught to her, as she has been surrounded by racism all her life. In having been raised in a racist, southern community, Ellen, who is young and, though exceptionally headstrong, is only beginning to form her own ideas, judges Starletta and her family as she has been taught to judge them. She does not scorn them outwardly but clearly thinks of them as lower than she, as is the case when she, however politely, declines to eat with them. This is a particularly important scene, as, later in the novel when Ellen has indeed formed her own opinion of race, she remembers her feeling of supremacy with absolute shame. In Chapter 6, Ellen mentions that regardless of how fond she is of Starletta and her family, she doesn't think she could ever "drink after them" and examines "what Starletta leaves on the lip of a bottle." And though she has "never seen anything with the naked eye," she thinks that an invisible contaminant is will doubtless "get into [her] system and do some damage." This "damage" Ellen is concerned about is her fear that she will somehow lose the little status she has as a white person, however poor and miserable she may be. She feels sorry for Starletta purely because of her skin tone, though she later relents and realizes the richness that Starletta and her family possess. Also later, after Ellen has realized that skin color is of no real importance, she says that she will even lick Starletta's cup to prove how much she loves her and how sorry she is that she ever pitied her on the basis of race alone.

Although Ellen harbors these racist misconceptions, it is clear that she does not understand them. When she hears her grandmother say that she would "rather some real niggers" have her mother's clothes than those who "drink and carry on like trash," she does not know how to interpret it, as she does not drink and will "not even eat at a colored house." Ellen's flimsy racist values have been taught to her by adults, though these values seem illogical to her, because she can find no tangible evidence to support them. She does not understand the distinction her grandmother sees in white versus black and has no concept of how her family's destitution and low social class fuel her grandmother's close association of them with the people she hatefully calls "niggers."

Ellen feels that she is too old to enjoy most of Starletta's toys, as indeed, she seems much older than any other ten-year-old child. Ellen's days are not filled with dollhouses and crayons but, instead, electric bills and frozen dinners. She cannot be carefree and young to the extent that Starletta is, as she must undertake the responsibilities of an adult. Although it is not blatantly clear, Ellen is most definitely envious of Starletta's family, thus explaining the overwhelming flood of emotion she feels when Starletta's parents present her with the sweater, which Ellen notes "does not look colored at all." It is this thought that serves as the catalyst for Ellen's reconsideration of race relations. If the sweater, which Starletta's parents bought at the "colored store," is not definitively or even noticeably "colored," then why is there any difference between white and black at all, and, more importantly, why does it matter? Eventually, Ellen asks herself these questions and comes to the realization that, indeed, there is none. It is also important to note that it is not just the sweater that Ellen loves, but the warmth and affection with which it has been given to her. Starletta's parents serve as a source of love and care for Ellen and constantly provide refuge from her domestic misery.

It is not made clear exactly how far her father goes in his sexual abuse of Ellen, though it is certain that, for Ellen, this is the final straw. During the encounter, her father calls Ellen by another name, presumably her mother's, as Ellen shouts at him that it "was her name ... I am Ellen!" Thus begins a thematic issue of identity and self, which continues throughout the novel. This theme of identity is also touched upon in Chapter 6 when Ellen is at her new house and looks at herself in the mirror. When she examines her reflection, she says that she "feels like a stranger in [her] own self," having changed her life completely. This metamorphosis, accentuated namely by Ellen's changing opinions of race, occurs gradually throughout the course of the novel, beginning with the death of her mother and ending with the acquisition of her beloved new mama.

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