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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapter 12

Chapter 11

Chapter 13

Summary

Ellen "counts up" the numerous things she likes the most about her new home, the first being that she does not plan to leave until she is old, and, if someone ever tries to make her leave, she vows to chain herself to the bed. Second, she is glad that she does not owe anyone money and that she always has good food to eat and never has to feel guilty for eating or scrounge for food. Lastly, Ellen likes that her new mama tells her good morning "like she means it."

Ellen readies herself for school on Monday morning and, after a hearty breakfast, prepares to leave with her new sisters. Roger cries and reaches for Stella as they go out the door. Ellen explains that Stella is Roger's mother and that Stella, who is in seventh grade, is the youngest mother she has ever known. On the bus ride to school, Stella sits in the very back and flirts with the boys, and Ellen is certain that she lets the boys feel up her shirt, though she dares not turn around to look.

During music class, Ellen moves her lips but does not sing. She thinks of Starletta and how they have drifted apart. Starletta is visibly older, having removed the plaits from her hair and having grown rather tall. Ellen feels the urge to press her hands to her and stop her from "growing into a time [when] she will not want to play." Starletta has developed a crush on a white boy named Tom, though Ellen knows she will never be able to have him, just because Starletta is black. Starletta knows that, financially, Tom can provide her with more than a black boy can. Starletta and Ellen both keep lists of things to tell one another, though Ellen fears that soon Starletta will lose interest and forget about her. Thus, she wants to find something that will make Starletta remember her forever.

On her way home from school that day, Ellen wonders if her new mama will let Starletta stay over their house for the weekend. She has an innate feeling that her answer will be yes and knows that she is brave for daring to do something that has never been done before. She remembers when, two years ago, she would not eat a "colored biscuit" even when she was starving and wonders if she is the same girl. Now, she sometimes thinks that, deep down, she is really a colored person and is ashamed when she remembers how, in the list she made of what she wanted for her family, she had written "white."

Presently, all Ellen wants is for Starletta to stay at her house and to know that she loves her. To prove her love, Ellen says that she will even lick Starletta's cup, ashamed to remember the day she would not even eat a meal with Starletta and her family.

Each Tuesday, Ellen must see the school psychologist. She dreads going to see him and understands that the more problems she has, the more money he is paid to deconstruct them. Thus, she tells him very little about herself. The psychologist first tells Ellen that she is unsociable and later diagnoses her with an identity problem, as she uses a last name, "Foster," that is not really her own. Ellen explains that she has changed her last name because she wanted a new beginning to match her new family, a foster family. However, Ellen does not understand that her new mother is, as adults know her, a foster mother. The psychologist explains the meaning of a foster family, and, for a moment, Ellen feels foolish. She quickly recovers and asks if she may continue using "Foster" as her last name. The psychologist continues to probe Ellen about her identity, and she tells him off. This is her last visit to the psychologist.

Analysis

In Chapter 12, food is once more representative of love, comfort, and stability. As Ellen eats her breakfast before school, she compares it to the breakfast featured on the side of the cereal box, complete with toast, juice, eggs, milk, and cereal, which matches hers exactly. In the past, Ellen has had to scrounge for food and, at times, has had barely enough money to buy groceries. Now, Ellen is comforted in knowing that she will always have plenty of food and no longer must feel guilty for eating, which she mentions as some of her favorite aspects of living with her new mama. Even when Ellen has been provided with adequate portions of food at her grandmother's, and later at her aunt's house, she always ate alone or in silence. At her new house, food signifies an occasion; a meal necessitates a social gathering of family and implies a feeling of great unity and warmth.

Food is also symbolic of love in Chapter 12 when Ellen feels remorse for refusing to take a meal with Starletta in the past, solely because she is black. Ellen wants to redeem herself by inviting Starletta to stay over her house for the weekend and says that she will lick the cup from which Starletta drinks to prove how much she loves her. Only now does Ellen realize that there is no difference between a "white biscuit" and a "colored biscuit," which marks a crucial turning point in both Ellen's thinking and in the novel, itself.

Everything, it seems, is changing. Ellen has at last realized that black and white are equal and that, in her changed beliefs, race holds no meaning. Also changing is Starletta's body and level of maturity, by which Ellen is somewhat alarmed. Ellen fears that Starletta's physical, emotional, and psychological growth will completely alter their relationship and wants to stop her from growing so much that they will ultimately drift apart.

Also a primary focus of Chapter 12 is Ellen's ever-changing identity. Interestingly, Ellen thinks that, deep down, she had truly been intended to be black, but instead had been "bleached and sent to the wrong bunch of folks." This transformation in Ellen's views of herself and of race in general can only be attributed to what she has learned about love from her new home and what she has learned from both Starletta and Mavis about friendship. Even Ellen, herself, has a hard time recognizing the girl she has metamorphosed into and wonders if she is "the same girl" she had been, which she knows she is most assuredly not.

Ellen is forced to address her own changing identity again when she meets with the school psychologist. In changing families, Ellen has changed herself and wants her last name to reflect her transformation. Ellen also does not want to be associated with the painful baggage her last name carries and adopts "Foster" to signify her attachment to her new family. Thus, when the psychologist explains that "Foster" is not the last name of her new family, but merely a title for its type, Ellen feels a bit displaced, as she had before while living with her relatives. Ellen has no deep family roots or history and therefore is not rocked by this news. All she really wants is for someone to love her and for her name to signify a "fresh start."

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