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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapter 10

Chapter 9

Chapter 11

Summary

With the start of summer comes Ellen's unhappy stay at her mama's mama's house. Beforehand, Ellen tells Roy and Julia that she would rather be sent to reform school or work on a chain gang than live with her crazy, mean- spirited grandmother. But they are powerless to save Ellen and can only promise to see her on visits. These visits never transpire, however, as Julia, for some unexplained reason, is fired from her job as the school's art teacher, and she and Roy move away. Sometimes, Ellen receives a letter from Julia.

In packing for her grandmother's house, Ellen leaves most of her belongings behind and brings with her only the money she has been saving. Of the time she spent at her grandmother's house, Ellen says it is like a record being played at the wrong speed. Her grandmother's car reminds Ellen of the undertaker's car at her mother's funeral, only it is a different color. During the ride to her house, Ellen's grandmother does not even speak to Ellen, except to ask her when school begins again. Ellen laments that if she had known then what her summer with her grandmother would be like, she would have jumped out of the moving car and run off.

Initially, Ellen assumes that her grandmother treats her cruelly because she is disappointed that Ellen is not a beautiful girl. Ellen admits that she is not a exactly a "vision," but she does have "good intentions that count." She also assumes that because her grandmother is wealthy, staying with her will not be completely terrible, so she should make the best of it while she is there. This optimism, however, does not last long. By July, Ellen refers to her grandmother as "the damn witch," and no longer cares about her wealth, as she now understands that it is irrelevant to her happiness.

At her grandmother's insistence, Ellen sleeps in the bedroom that once belonged to her mother and has nightmares of ghosts. Ellen is convinced that her grandmother has meant for her to have these nightmares and wonders why she treats her so cruelly.

At the very start of Ellen's stay, her grandmother wakes her up at sunrise and sends her to work with the field hands picking cotton in the excruciating summer heat. The other field hands, all of whom are black, refer to Ellen's grandmother as the "bosslady," as she is the one who owns the cotton fields on which they work. Mavis, one of the field hands, is especially kind to Ellen, and Mavis teaches her how to work the fields and stay cool. Whenever Ellen falls behind, Mavis will help catch her up. She thinks it is absurd that a white child would be sent to work on the field and tells Ellen with a little laugh that her people were "born to chop" and that is why they are such steadfast workers. Ellen, however, does not think this is at all funny. Mavis also tells Ellen that she had been raised with her mother, who was regarded as smart, sweet, and her mother's pet, for she was the only child not ordered to work the fields. Since her mother's death, her grandmother, the bosslady, has been "touched." Ellen wants to examine encyclopedias to find a diagnosis for her grandmother, though she feels she would not know where to begin.

After a month of working the fields, Ellen thinks to herself how she could "pass for a colored now," and how race no longer makes any difference to her.

Ellen and her grandmother do not eat at the same table, except for on Sundays, when they do not speak to one another. After dinner each night, Ellen walks to Mavis's house and spies on her family. She takes notes on their behavior and compiles a list of what attributes a family should have and craves one for herself, except one that is "white and with a little more money."

Eventually, Ellen understands that her grandmother is using her to seek revenge on her father. She constantly reminds Ellen how much she is like him, even though Mavis assures her that she looks just like her mother. Ellen checks herself in the mirror to be sure she has not metamorphosed into a vision of her father and continually wonders how much influence he has had on her behavior.

While Ellen is at her grandmother's house, her father dies of an alcohol-induced aneurysm. When her grandmother tells Ellen the news, she slaps her hard across the face and dares her to cry. Ellen tries not to and has never planned to, but a single tear slips down her cheek. She compares her sadness at her father's death to the sadness she feels when a movie star dies. Subsequently, her grandmother demands that she never shed a tear again. This demand paralyzes Ellen, as even by the last page of the novel, she still cannot bring herself to cry.

Ellen does not attend her father's funeral, but her uncle Rudolph stops by to deliver the flag that covered his casket, as he had served in the war. Rudolph thought that Ellen should have the flag, but her grandmother is disgusted and burns the flag in wood fire later that night.

Shortly after her father's death, Ellen's grandmother falls ill, and Ellen nurses her with the utmost care. The only subject on which her grandmother can speak of with any lucidity is Ellen's father. She continually berates Ellen for reminding her of him and accuses her of helping him, presumably, kill her mother. She tells Ellen that she must take better care of her than she did her own mother.

Analysis

Chapter 10 exposes Ellen's acute self-awareness, as was touched on in Chapter 5. Initially, Ellen assumes that her grandmother is cruel to her because she had hoped for a beautiful girl and instead, got only Ellen, who, as she herself says, is "not exactly a vision." Ellen thus assumes that her grandmother's cruelty is the result of her disappointment in Ellen's appearance. Even when Ellen ascertains that her grandmother is not cruel because of her lack of beauty, but because of her mere association with her own father, she remains extremely self-conscious. Ellen grows ever fearful when her grandmother constantly berates her for how much she resembles her father—in her eyes, especially—though Mavis comments more than once on Ellen's similarity to her mother. Despite Mavis's reassurance, Ellen questions herself and wonders, fearfully, if she has metamorphosed into her father. Her fear is so great and her grandmother's comparison so insistent, that Ellen "must check in the mirror to see if [she has] changed into him without knowing or feeling it." Ellen is forever scarred by her grandmother's comparison and says that even still, in her stable home, she wonders if she has tricked herself into believing she is someone she is not. Naturally, the last person Ellen would want to be like is her father, whom she hates more than any one and with good reason. Thus, her grandmother's redefinition of Ellen as her father is torturous. As an eleven year old, Ellen is undergoing a period of self-criticism and is just beginning to understand who she is. In comparing Ellen to her father, her grandmother warps Ellen's fragile perception of self, well aware that it will haunt her for years to come. In hindsight, Ellen warns that if one is not careful, the strong persuasion of others can alter one's awareness of self, as is the case with Ellen and her grandmother.

Ellen's self-perception is altered also when she notices that, after a month of farming, she could now "pass for a colored." It is this realization that marks the true pivotal point in Ellen's views on race, as she is coming to understand that, ultimately, skin color is of no importance to her. Another indication of Ellen's changing views on race and racism is her reaction to Mavis's statement that her people were "born to chop," meaning that they were created to perform manual—or slave—labor. Although Mavis laughs at this, Ellen cannot see the humor in it. Ellen's reaction infers that she does not understand why blacks should be restrictedto —or be created strictly for—backbreaking work when they are clearly capable of more.

In her growing longing for a loving family, Ellen sneaks down the path to Mavis's family's cabin each night after supper to observe how they interact and takes notes on their behavior so that she may learn how a "real" family operates. From her observations, Ellen creates a list of "all a family should have," and, to her, Mavis' family has it all—except running water, wealth, and a light skin tone. Later on, when Ellen has fully realized the meaninglessness of race, she is deeply ashamed and remorseful for ever deprecating Mavis's family with these three exceptions. Mavis and her family embody the happiness, love, and stability that Ellen craves, as does Starletta's family, though it takes much time for Ellen to realize this, as her learned racism acts as a screen through which she cannot see clearly.

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