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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Ellen must continually overcome terrible hardship—sexual abuse, alcoholism, neglect, poverty, cruelty. Throughout it all, however, she is determined to endure and knows that she deserves better than the horrific circumstances under which she is suffering. This determination strengthens Ellen’s will to endure and undoubtedly pulls her through her grief and misery, as she knows only she alone can help herself; though others may have tried, no one has succeeded. Ellen eventually realizes that it has not been she, but Starletta, who has had the “hardest row to hoe,” as she is a black girl who is growing up in a highly racist community. Ellen gradually becomes conscious of this, especially when she recognizes that Starletta will not be able to date the white boy on whom she has a crush, solely because of her skin color.
As Ellen ages, she grows acutely self-conscious and self-critical. Her self-awareness is especially evident when she must endure her grandmother’s accusations that she is a replication of her father. Ellen is so shaken by this comparison that she must sometimes check in the mirror to assure herself that she is not slowly becoming someone she cannot recognize, especially her father, whom she reasonably hates more than anyone else in the world. Mavis, however, tells Ellen that she resembles her mother, which makes Ellen very curious about her mother’s past. At one point, Ellen criticizes herself for having a misshapen head and a disproportionate body, which she hopes will be remedied when she develops hips and breasts. After she has finally found her new mama, Ellen examines herself in the mirror one day after her bath and wonders if she is the same girl she was two years ago, which she undoubtedly is not.
When the novel begins, Ellen believes in the ridiculous racist biases that have been taught to her by her community and her family. Although she is best friends with Starletta, who is black, she will not eat a meal with her family or stay at her house overnight for fear that Starletta’s skin color is somehow contagious. Ellen pities Starletta for being black and feels lucky that she herself is white. However, as time goes on, Ellen’s awareness is heightened, as she learns from Starletta and Mavis that it is not skin color that is important but, rather, one’s content and character. By the final chapters of the novel, Ellen is deeply ashamed for ever harboring racist prejudices and invites Starletta to stay over her house. She says that now, she will even lick Starletta’s cup if that is what it takes to prove her love for her.