“Ellen Foster” by Kaye Gibbons
Her 1987 debut novel, “Ellen Foster” has all the necessary darkness, candor, and southern charm in place to get it compared to the master of Southern Gothic fiction, Ms. Flannery O’Connor.
Our title character and protagonist, Ellen Foster, is a young girl placed in foster care after her mother commits suicide and her father abuses her. Ellen comes off as an older, more world-weary version of Scout Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” (written by another Southern lady – Harper Lee) mixed with another classic southern literary kid, Huckleberry Finn. As she debates her feelings about her African-American friends, and whether or not it’s better to be black or white, the adults around her prove both helpful and useless. It’s the south in the 1970s, so race relations and the foster care system are both in their infancy. By the end of novel, thanks to a whole bunch of experience, Ellen no longer feels like she is better than her young (and black) friend Starletta.
The book is a fast read, but a thought-provoking one. Ellen is a girl you cheer for and cling to while she navigates the hardships of growing up in her innocent yet experienced way.
I mean, this is a girl who takes “Foster” as her new last name once she goes to live with the foster family, not realizing it’s not their last name, but knowing she wants to be there forever.
How backwoods charming is that?
(Heck, this book was even chosen by Oprah for her book club in 1997.)