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After her mother commits suicide by overdosing on her
medication, eleven- year-old Ellen, the title character and narrator
of the book, must find herself a loving home and family to take
her in. Immediately after her mother's death, Ellen endures repeated
physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by her alcoholic father
and, because of her father's habit, is forced to pay the bills,
shop for groceries, and cook for herself. Ellen retreats to her
friend Starletta's house for refuge from her father and his food-grubbing,
flesh- grabbing friends. Starletta and her parents, who are black,
live in a grungy cabin without an indoor bathroom.
When her teacher finds a bruise on Ellen's arm, she intervenes, and
Ellen is sent to live with Julia, the school's art teacher, and
Roy, her husband. Both Julia and Roy are young, liberal hippies
who care for Ellen as best they can while she is with them. Together
with Starletta, they celebrate Ellen's eleventh birthday, which
she had nearly forgotten. However, Ellen must leave Julia and Roy
when her grandmother battles for and wins custody of her in court.
Ellen does not want to leave Julia and Roy to stay with her grandmother—a
cruel, miserly old woman who has scarcely talked to her ever before—but she
must, per the court's orders.
Ellen spends the summer with her grandmother, whom she
calls her "mama's mama," and is miserable with her. Her grandmother owns
farmland and orders Ellen to work the fields with her black servants
beneath the scorching summer sun. While working the fields, Ellen
befriends Mavis, a kind black woman who teaches Ellen how to row
and who tells Ellen how she had known her mother as a child. Mavis
notes how much Ellen resembles Ellen's mother. Ellen's grandmother,
however, is insistent that Ellen is a mirror image of her father,
a wretched man whom both Ellen and her grandmother hate. She is
constantly reminding Ellen that she is just like her father and somehow
wants revenge on him through her torture of Ellen. Ellen's grandmother
also tells Ellen that she is to blame for her mother's death, because
Ellen had allowed her to die. During the course of her stay with
her grandmother, Ellen's father dies, having suffered an aneurysm
as a result of his habitual binge drinking. Ellen, who has thought
of killing her father many times, had not planned on being sad to
hear of his death. However, she feels as she does when a movie star
dies—a distant sadness—and sheds a single tear for him. Her grandmother
is furious at her show of emotion for her father and tells her never
to cry again. Ellen is scarred for a long time afterwards, for at
the close of the book, she still cannot bring herself to cry. After
her father's death, Ellen determines that her grandmother had been
paying her uncles, Rudolph and Ellis, to spy on her and her father
while she was still living with him. When Rudolph brings over the
flag that had been on Ellen's father's casket, her grandmother turns
him away and later burns the flag in a wood fire she's made outside.
When her grandmother falls ill, Ellen cares for her with the utmost
tenderness, as she does not want to be blamed for yet another death.
Inevitably, her grandmother dies, and Ellen frames her body with
fake flowers, as if to "trick" God into accepting her into heaven.
After her grandmother's death, Ellen is sent to live with
her aunt Nadine, and her cousin Dora. Nadine and Dora treat Ellen
condescendingly and ignore her for being "cheap," though they have
little more money than Ellen and far less integrity. For Christmas,
Ellen wants to give Nadine and Dora a wonderful gift. Because she
cannot afford to buy them a present, Ellen uses her artistic talent
and paints them a picture of two cute-looking cats. Ellen would
not have personally chosen to paint cats, as they are empty of any
deep emotional quality, though she knows that Nadine and Dora will appreciate
them more than her pictures of the brooding ocean. When Nadine asks
Ellen what she wants for Christmas, Ellen asks only for a package
of art paper, though she secretly hopes that Nadine will give her
a few other surprise gifts. Ellen works up her hope for these other
few gifts and for Nadine and Dora's appreciation of her cat painting.
Both of her hopes, disappointingly, are crushed on Christmas Day
when she receives only the pack of white paper and later overhears
Nadine and Dora making disparaging remarks about her painting, though
Nadine had pretended to like it earlier that morning. Upon hearing
this, Ellen is deeply ashamed and, moreover, enraged. She shuts
herself in her room, and when Dora and Nadine aggravate her, she
retaliates. Nadine orders Ellen out of her house on Christmas day,
and Ellen packs up her box and walks across town to the Foster lady's
house in hopes that she will take her in.
Ellen wears her best dress so that she will make a good
first impression and, after a few moments of hesitation, knocks
on the Foster lady's" door. The woman, soon to become Ellen's "new mama,"
welcomes Ellen into her warm home and is concerned for Ellen's well
being. Ellen offers her the one hundred and sixty six dollars she
has been saving for the past two years in exchange for a home and
a bit of attention. Ellen's new mama refuses the money but offers
to call the county the first thing the next morning to negotiate
her adoption of Ellen. In bed that night, Ellen thinks to herself how
lucky she is to have her new mama, who, in the future, will provide
her with plenty of love, food, and nurturing.
After Ellen has settled in at her new mama's house, she
wants to invite Starletta to sleep over, since they have drifted
apart as each has grown older. Ellen thinks how brave it is to be
breaking a social rule in having a black person sleep over a white
person's house. Ellen is ashamed as she remembers how, two years
ago, she would not even eat supper with Starletta and her family
and only because of their skin color. Now, Ellen vows to lick Starletta's
cup if that is what it takes to prove her love for her. When Starletta
does come over Ellen's new house, Ellen confesses to her the remorse
she feels for past prejudices and, ultimately, realizes that it
has been Starletta, not herself, who has had the most hardship to