The novel's eleven-year-old protagonist, she suffers sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father, and, after her mother commits suicide, is tossed from one unhappy home to another. All the while Ellen remains hopeful that she will someday find a loving home, which she eventually does.
The novel's antagonist, he abuses his daughter, Ellen, sexually and psychologically. A severe alcoholic, he holds no job other than selling liquor and eventually drinks himself to death.
Ellen's mother. She has suffered from poor health since having "romantic [rheumatic] fever" as a child. When she is at last out of the hospital, she is so depressed by her husband's cruelty and her bleak situation that she commits suicide by ingesting a bottle of her prescription medication.
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Ellen's black best friend. Starletta helps Ellen to see that skin color makes no difference in the quality of a person. She lives with her mother and father in a ramshackle cabin with no indoor toilet and often provides Ellen with refuge from her father. Gradually, she transforms from an unsophisticated child into a mature young woman, and she develops a crush on a white boy from school.
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Ellen's foster mother. She is everything for which Ellen could have hoped. New Mama is kind, caring, nurturing, always has enough money to pay for groceries, and has plenty of love to give Ellen and the other children she fosters.
Ellen's grandmother. She is old and miserly and treats Ellen with the utmost cruelty, as she vehemently hates Ellen's father and seeks vengeance on him through Ellen. After winning custody of Ellen in court, she immediately sends her to work the fields with the black field hands on the farms she owns in the scorching summer heat. At the end of the summer, she dies of illness, even after Ellen has taken extraordinary good care of her.
A kind field hand on Ellen's grandmother's farm. Mavis takes Ellen under her wing and teaches her how to row the land and how to stay cool in the unbearable summer heat. She tells Ellen of how she had known her mother as a child and says that Ellen looks very much like her. Mavis has a large, happy family that Ellen admires and wants to emulate.
Ellen's aunt on her mother's side. Nadine is false and pretentious and lies to herself that she is wealthy and successful to gain confidence. She is forced to take Ellen for a short period of time, though she eventually kicks her out of the house on Christmas day. She dotes on her daughter Dora and treats Dora like a small child, although she is the same age as Ellen.
Ellen's cousin and Nadine's daughter. Dora is a sheltered, spoiled brat who gets everything she wants when she wants it. She is a chronic pants-wetter, though she is the same age as Ellen.
Ellen's grade school art teacher who temporarily cares for Ellen after another teacher learns that she is being abused at home. Julia is a hippy raised in the northeast, who has migrated to the south after college with her husband, Roy. She is very liberal and encourages Ellen in her artistic endeavors.
Julia's husband. Roy is a progressively minded hippy who keeps an organic garden that he fertilizes with chicken manure, with which Ellen is fascinated. He bakes Ellen a lovely cake for her birthday and does not mind taking care of other household chores typically performed by a woman.
Ellen's uncles on her father's side. They agree to spy on Ellen and her father for Ellen's grandmother. They make inaccurate reports that Ellen is wild and a troublemaker and are compensated by Ellen's grandmother with large sums of money, some of which she instructs them to give to Ellen and her father for the bare necessities.
Ellen's foster sister at her new mama's house. Stella is a big flirt and sits at the back of the bus with the boys on the way to school. As a seventh grader, she is a mother to a fatherless baby, Roger, and is the youngest mother Ellen has ever known.
Stella's baby son who likes to crawl into Ellen's room and chew on objects he finds on the floor.
Ellen's aunt on her mother's side. Betsy allows Ellen to stay with her for a weekend and finds it funny when Ellen had misunderstood that she would be staying permanently. She is petty and bickers with Nadine, her sister, when their mother dies.
The horse Ellen rides and cares for at her new mama's house.
Ellen's new foster sister who loves to dance to music with no words.