Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Ellen Foster Ellen Foster is 10.  Her father is an alcoholic, her mother is sickly and very early on in this short novel returns from hospital and commits suicide (her father watching the pills go down and telling Ellen her mother will be fine after a rest).  It's clear very early on that Ellen will have to be strong to get through the early part of her life.   Ellen has a black schoolfreind, Scarletta.  She's welcome at that home anytime, but somewhere along the line she's been indoctrinated with wrongful information about "coloureds" and finds the smell of the home and the food, and the drink, hard to cope with, going thirsty rather than drink out of the same bottle Scarletta has drunk from.  She's taken in for a while by one of her school teachers, and then by her grandmother, who detests her with her very being, for the sin of being her father's daughter.  Eventually, she finds herself with a foster mother or "new mama" as she refers to her.  The story jumps back and forwards and I found myself wishing hard that life would eventually treat her well.  I read it in a oner - couldn't put it down - and was delighted by the style of the writing, and by the character of Ellen herself - a little lady who needs to be brave and hard-faced whilst everything in her world is mayhem.  She's a great, great character - and the others we meet in this short book make a great supporting cast.

First published in 1987, this was Gibbons' first book, and what a book.  Told in the first person, and in the present tense, which will not suit everyone, but suited this book fine, this is Ellen' s story of her early life.   There is a feeling of truth being stranger than fiction here, and I could not resist looking up Kaye Gibbons on Wikipedia...... look her up yourself.  She has had one hard life too - mainly because she is bi-polar, and this has obviously effected her life dramatically.  She's got children of her own, but it's obvious that struggling with her own mental illness has been hard.  She's quoted as saying that she finds she writes best when she is on the manic side.  I need to seek out her other books now and see if I like them as well as I do this one.   No idea how this one passed me by, but guess that it was not given much of a chance in the UK and I found it myself, clean and new (and 22 years old!) in a second hand book emporium. So glad.