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The title character of Ellen Foster is
a headstrong eleven-year-old girl who suffers much abuse in her
young life. She is sexually abused by her alcoholic father, and,
as he is unemployed and very seldom at home, she must adopt all
household responsibilities, such as paying bills, shopping, and
cooking. Ellen adopts these duties without complaint, though she
realizes that most children have loving parents that do take care
of them. Shortly after her mother commits suicide, Ellen can no
longer stand her father's incessant sexual and psychological abuse.
She knows she deserves a loving home and family and first tries
to stay with her aunt Betsy, who, after Ellen stays for the weekend,
tells her that the visit was only meant to be temporary.
At school, Ellen's teacher asks her how she had gotten
the bruise on her arm. Ellen is not at all reluctant to tell her
that it was her father who put it there, and, after a brief conference,
the teachers decide that Ellen will live with Julia, her art teacher.
Ellen's short but happy stay with Julia comes to an abrupt end when
her wealthy but cruel grandmother wins custody of her in court.
Ellen is extraordinarily precocious and understands that her grandmother's
cruelty is a means to get revenge on her father, whom her grandmother despises.
Ellen's stay with her grandmother highlights her acute self-awareness
and her will to survive despite the worst odds. Her grandmother
is constantly reminding Ellen of how much she is like her evil father,
which scares Ellen into questioning her body and her character.
Very seldom does her grandmother speak to her, except to berate her
about her likeness to her father.
Almost immediately, Ellen's grandmother puts her to work
rowing the cotton fields that she owns. It is there that she meets
Mavis, a kind-hearted, black field worker who helps her to learn
that it is character, not skin color, that is important in a person.
Ellen also learns this lesson from Starletta, her black best friend.
However cruel her grandmother is, Ellen still cares for her with
the utmost tenderness when she falls ill. Ellen is unusually forgiving
and loving, especially considering that she has suffered a life
absent of love, and hopes that her grandmother will be welcomed
into heaven despite her cruelty.
After her grandmother's death, she is sent to live with
her aunt Nadine and her cousin Dora. She is miserable with them,
as they are both utterly false. They pretend to be wealthy and successful,
and they are condescending to Ellen for coming from an impoverished background.
She cannot tolerate their falsity, as she is an honest, matter-of-fact
character. Never once does she sugarcoat her story to make herself
seem better than she is; she simply says what she sees and what
she feels. Throughout her hardship, she is determined to find a
home and family to love her and is confident that, somewhere, one
Upon first sight of her new mama, Ellen knows she will
be the one to take her in and love her, which she eventually does
when, after being kicked out of Nadine's house on Christmas day,
she bravely walks across town, knocks on her new mama's door, and
asks her if she will care for her. In return, Ellen offers her one
hundred and sixty six dollars—her life savings—which new mama refuses.
This scene denotes Ellen's inherent sense of fairness and equanimity,
which is evident also when she invites Starletta to stay over her
house for the weekend, as she feels she must repay her for her kindness.
Overall, Ellen is a remarkably precocious, determined, and intelligent
girl far wiser and wittier than the average eleven year old.