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Ellen, now ten years old, reminisces about how when she was little, she would think of various ways to kill her father. Her favorite idea had been of loosing a poisonous spider in his bed and having "two colored boys" lift his body onto a stretcher. But ultimately, Ellen doesn't have to kill her father, as he drinks himself to death a year after the county has removed Ellen from his care, and she affirms that she is better off now that he is dead.
Throughout her internal monologue, which carries through the entirety of the novel, Ellen meshes memories of her miserable past with scenes from her enriched present. In her new home, Ellen is well cared for, with enough food to eat and clean clothes to wear.
Each Tuesday, Ellen sees a school psychologist. When he tells her that she is scared, Ellen refutes his diagnosis, admitting that she once had been scared but is no longer. She remembers the time when she had been frightened, living with her alcoholic father and sickly mother, who, because of her illness, had spent much of her time in the hospital, as she had been weakened by "romantic [rheumatic] fever" as a child. When Ellen's mother does come home from the hospital after having surgery, Ellen's father demands that her mother make him dinner, declaring that he's tired of making it for himself. Ellen scoffs at this, knowing that she's been the one to make all of the meals while her mother has been gone. Ellen is clearly angry with her father, especially for making her mother work when she is weak. All she can do is help her mother in the kitchen and take revenge by spitting on her father's fork.
Ellen's mother cooks dinner despite her ailments, not once complaining that she is too tired or ill. During dinner, her father jokes that that this may be her last supper, and Ellen tries to understand why he is so cruel to her mother. Afterwards, Ellen helps her mother undress and lies in bed beside her.
Later that same night, Ellen's father goes out to buy alcohol. When he returns, he orders Ellen to turn on the television for him and wakes her mother with his shouting. Eventually, he has drunk so much that he is passed out on the bathroom floor. As she does every Saturday, Ellen must shove him awake with her foot, for she refuses to touch him with her hands. She orders him to get out, and he staggers out the door to sleep in his truck. Ellen's mother has witnessed this episode and begins to cry. Ellen comforts her, saying that what she's seen is "no reason to cry." She crawls back into bed with her mother and vows to stay with her until she is breathing regularly. As she lies with her mother, Ellen notes that there is a terrible storm coming and wishes that the lightning would strike her father, though she knows she does not control the weather or "the way the Lord" rules.
In contrast, Ellen's new mama serves delicious food in an orderly manner and never yells at the children. Now, at her new house, Ellen leisurely snacks on candy and thinks about how she will decorate her new, beautiful room. Her new mama has sewed her matching curtains and pillow shams for her bed.
The following morning, Ellen wakes to find her mother alone with her father in the kitchen. This makes Ellen nervous, as she knows that he is prone to abusive violence. Ellen laments that even when they sleep, she tries her best not to leave them alone together. When she hears them arguing at night, she demands that she must sleep in her baby crib, which is still in their room.
In the kitchen, Ellen's father is rifling through her mother's purse. Ellen sees her mother's heart medication on the table, and her father barks that she has swallowed almost the entire bottle. Ellen then asks her mother to vomit up the pills, but she refuses. When Ellen suggests she run to the store to use their telephone, her father threatens to kill her and her mother with a knife if she does. He then tells Ellen that all her mother needs is sleep and orders her to take her back to bed. He assures Ellen that the pills will not hurt her mother. Lying beside her in bed, Ellen notices that her mother's heart has stopped beating.
Later, Ellen prepares to go to her mother's funeral, tolerating an ugly dress and contemplating wearing her mother's lipstick, though she decides it would be improper. She notes that the redness of her father's eyes is not from crying but, presumably, from liquor. Finally, though, her mother has triumphed: for once, he is quiet.
Ellen tells of how, in her new home, she stays up late reading, otherwise, she will not be able to fall asleep. She loves to read and is bored with the stories she is assigned to read in school.
Throughout the entirety of the novel, Ellen carries the story in her own, ten- year-old voice, using colloquialisms, improper grammar, and, occasionally, a misconstrued phrase, such as "romantic fever" (for rheumatic fever). There are no direct quotations, only words that we are exposed to after they have filtered through Ellen's sieve, thus taking on the distinction of her own voice. Many of these indirect quotes are hysterically funny as construed by Ellen's matter-of- fact delivery and provide a strikingly accurate and honest portrait of the other characters in the book. Also, many of the characters in the book do not have actual first or last names, as Ellen knows them only by nickname, such as "mama" or "mama's mama." Despite her young age, Ellen never once complains about her situation, nor does she lose faith that one day she will escape it. Although much of the language is basic, as is common to a ten year old, Ellen is clearly precocious in her insights and understanding. Most importantly, she understands that she deserves a higher standard of living and far more happiness than she derives from her home, with an abusive father and a dying mother. To have endured all that she has been through, Ellen is unfailingly determined to prevail. She wants to kill her father not because she is demonic, but because she is desperate. Ellen's deepest desire is for survival, and she knows that the only possible way she can survive is to cut her father out of her life. If the only way she can do that is to kill him, then her determination will give her the courage to go through with it. When her father dies of his own accord, having drank himself to death, Ellen says that she is better off without him, relieved not only that her primary source of torture is gone, but also because she does not have to worry about how she will escape him and is relieved from having to kill him.
As Ellen tells the school psychologist, whom she despises for "picking into her brain," she was once scared but is no longer. Throughout, it is evident that Ellen has a certain toughness to her, a shell of courage and fearlessness that she has developed over years of hardship and suffering. From the first to the last chapter of the book, Ellen intersperses scenes from her nightmarish past with those from her new, happier present. Although her past and present are enmeshed together, the distinction between them is brilliantly clear: in the past, Ellen feared for her life and well-being; in her new home, she worries only about when she will do her homework or what time dinner will be ready to eat.
Despite the frequent blend of past and present, the progression of the novel is very straightforward. The purpose of Ellen's story is to explain to the reader how she established herself in her new home, which she does by first describing her unhappy past, meanwhile working toward a complete picture of her stable, fortunate present with her "new mama."
When Ellen remarks that she envisions her father's body being carted away by "two colored boys," we are given an immediate message that the book is set in a time and place where racial discrimination is prevalent—in this case, the south during the mid to late 1970s. Ellen makes this comment not because she, herself, is racist, but because she has been raised in a highly racist community. The subjects of race relations and race-related tension will soon develop into one of the novel's main concerns. When, lying in bed with her dying mother, Ellen comments that there is a "terrible storm coming," she forebodes the nightmarish events that are indeed soon to come for her, including her mother's death, her father's torture, and the many unhappy homes of which she will bounce in and out over the next two years.