Most helpful critical review
...and I still don't know.
on August 11, 2003
Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster (Vintage, 1987)
So I finished this novel coming up on two weeks ago now, and I've been letting it marinate. I don't normally do that; I try to write reviews within a couple of days to keep everything fresh in my head. But when I finished Ellen Foster, all the voice in my head said was "...I don't know...", so I figured it's get clearer as I spent some time mulling the book over. But here we are two weeks later, and when it comes right down to it, I still don't know.
I wasn't aware this was an Oprah book until I just started doing research for this review (about ten minutes ago), but it's easy to see why. Another entry in the Dysfunction Junction genre, but then, when has Southern fiction not aspired to that great community? Faulkner and McCullers are looking proudly down from heaven at their figurative grandchildren who carry on the tradition. And if this book were nothing more than a study in dysfunction, I'd be able to say 'great, it does its job, it's mercifully shorter than most of the tripe Oprah recommends, one of the few she's picked that can be recommended without reservation."
But therein lies the problem, Ellen Foster is not just a novel about familial dysfunction. Oh, don't get me wrong, all the good stuff is covered; alcoholic father with incestuous and pedophilic tendencies (and isn't it interesting how those features go together more and more in American dysfunction fiction?), teacher with a heart of gold who wants to save the kid but is enough of a maverick the school fires her, evil "stepmother" (not literally, in this case), redemption through the church, etc., etc. ad infinitum. And Gibbons handles it all with a deft enough touch that we can put aside the fact that we saw it all in the Brothers Grimm and sit back and enjoy the ride. But Gibbons wants to take us a couple of steps farther. And here, depending on your point of view, is likely where the book is going to either succeed or falter.
Gibbons has a strong subtextual level in this book about race, the main reason it gets so many nods In comparison with good old Huck Finn. Ellen (who describes herself as white)'s best friend, Starletta, is black, and Ellen is often making comparisons between her life and Starletta's. Mostly the usual stuff one would expect from an eleven-year-old girl, but every once in a while she shows more adult flashes of insight that resound powerfully within the novel (and it's hard to figure out what the actual timeframe is, but I got the distinct feeling it was after the activists were killed in Mississippi in 1964). She does all this, however, with a different delivery method than most of the rest of the novel. She's not too shy about calling her father and his behavior onto the carpet, or taking about the antics of the characters who represent the archetypes of the evil stepmother and stepsister (an aunt and cousin), but she always seems hesitant when getting into the racial issue. (We don't find out Starletta is black for a few chapters, and Ellen does not mention her own race-or what she believes is her race-until the last chapter). Which is all well and good. It fits with Ellen's character and is part of the clue to the timeframe. However, it also raises nagging questions about Ellen's own race, especially given some of the other clues in the book, and the issue remains ultimately unresolved. How a reader is likely to interpret the book depends, then, on whether the reader is willing to take Ellen at her word (or whether the reader believes Ellen is white, instead of biracial/passing, whatever she says).
It is certainly a worthwhile book, and as I've mulled it over the last two weeks I've kicked it up half a star simply because it's stayed fresh in my mind this long. But it seems that such an important issue should have at least been alluded to. *** 1/2