The majority of families were once considered perfect. The father went to work everyday, while the mother stayed at home and cared for her two children, “Henry” and “Sue”. The children never fought and the parents were involved in all the community events. Our society has grown to accept that there is no such thing as a perfect family. Eleven-year-old Ellen from the book Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons, grows up in a household where her father is an abusive alcoholic and her mother is too sick to complete everyday tasks. By using her positive assets, and learning from her negative assets, Ellen was able to overcome a lot of challenges throughout the book.
One would think that six of the most important external assets fall under the category of support. Without support from one’s family and friends, he/she would have to be living in a state of depression. Ellen can claim to have only two of the support assets, which are to be in a caring school environment and to receive support from three or more nonparent adults. In school, her teachers worry about her, and want to know if she is OK: “The first day back at school my teacher noticed a bruise he put on my arm… she asked me if I had somewhere to spend the night…the teacher says everything is OK and she will make the necessary arrangements” (44). Although Ellen found support from the school psychologist, she also found support from her best and only friend Starletta’s parents. Starletta’s parents told Ellen, “You come on back when you want to… If he’s there when you get home you come on back here if you want to…”(32) Starletta’s parents are very understanding and they even take Ellen downtown whenever she needs to, buy clothing or food. Even though Ellen found support from few people out side her family, it did not make up for not having a family to love and care for her. Her mother died when she was only nine, and if her father was not out of the house drunk, then he would be in the house drunk. At the very beginning of the book she described her family like this, “Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail.” (2)
Communication is a key factor in having a “successful” family. One could never find Ellen’s father communicating with her positively. If he ever talked to her, he was demanding from her food, or sex. One day at Ellen’s school her father came in the middle of naptime saying that he would pay Ellen for sex. This is the closest he came to being actively involved and part of Ellen’s educational career. “Get the hell out of here is what he told me to do… he stepped out of the truck waving some cash money and telling Ellen dammit to come back he would pay for it” (54). Ellen was very used to this behavior; after he left she was not worried about him, all she wanted to know was if he had left the money. Another time when her father communicated with her was when her mother had taken an overdose of pills and was dying. Ellen remarks, “ Well I’ll just go to the store and use the telephone…. But my daddy says he will kill me if I try to leave this house.” (9) Ellen had to be a very strong person to put up with such a terrible father.
Ellen changes her view on people with different cultural/racial/and ethnic backgrounds drastically throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, she would not even eat a biscuit at her friend Starletta’s house because they were black even though she knew that she was starving and might not get something to eat that night: “Starletta slides out of her chair and her mama says to take something you better eat… She came at me with a biscuit in her hand and held it to my face. No matter how good it looks it’s still a colored biscuit” (31).After spending more and more time with Starletta she became more aware of the similarities between them. Ellen has a small epiphany when she goes to sleep at Starletta’s house; “ When I got up in the morning I was surprised because it did not feel like I had slept in a colored house. I cannot say I officially slept in the bed because I stayed in my coat on top of the covers.” (39) This part in the book is very important because it marks the spot where Ellen starts to realize that maybe there is not a difference between being black or white. Ellen finally ends the stage in life when she thinks it is wrong to like blacks. She says; “ I thought while I chopped from one field to the next how I could pass for colored now… But that was OK now I thought to myself of how it didn’t make much of a difference anymore”(66). By the end of the book she looks back on her assumptions on black people shamefully: “I wonder to myself am I the same girl who would not drink after Starletta two years ago or eat a colored biscuit when I was starved?” Ellen even says, “ Sometimes I even think I was cut out to be colored and I got bleached and sent to the wrong batch of folks”(85).
While working hard at looking at people more equally, Ellen also was working hard at strategizing for the future. Ellen could be categorized as a young person who knows how to plan ahead and make choices. Every month her mama’s mama sent an envelope of money, and Ellen always saw to it that she got a hold of the money before her father did. “I figured out what I needed and took it. You got the lights, gas to heat and cook, food and extras” (25). Not only did Ellen figure out how much she needed for the month, but she also found the best deals at the supermarket. “I found the best deal was the plate frozen with food already on it. A meat, two vegetables and a dab of dessert.” (25) Planning ahead kept Ellen busy, and farther away from her father.
Ellen developed good friendship skills throughout the book. At the beginning of the book Ellen is very bossy when she plays with Starletta. Ellen takes Starletta’s toys home with her and fix them because she could not stand playing with broken toys, even though she knew Starletta didn’t like when she did that. By the end of the book Ellen also feels sorry about how she treated Starletta, and she really wants to apologize to her for acting so racist. On page 100 Ellen proclaims, “Lord I do owe her.” After Ellen invites Starletta to her new mama’s house, she goes out of her way to make sure everything would be perfect for Starletta because all she wanted was to let her have an enjoyable time. Ellen had her mother make Starletta towels with her name sewn into them. Her friendship skills also help her to get away from her father and spend more time with people who really care.
Based on Ellen’s responses to her circumstances in life and her developmental assets, one would think that her future would be bittersweet. Ellen was a nice girl throughout the whole book. She may never grow up to have a family because of the family that she grew up in was such a negative environment. It is very possible that she will grow up to be an art teacher. One might think this because she looked up to her art teacher so much and admired her; Ellen’s mind is full of creativity and ideas. When Ellen’s school found out that her dad was abusive to her they put her up at her art teacher’s house.
Ellen says “I came a long way to get here but when you think about it really hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther… And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe”(126) Like Ellen did, it is important for everyone to look back into their life and see what they have learned. Doing so cannot change ones past but only add to their future. Ellen will always carry the horrors of her childhood with her but by using all of her assets that she gained throughout the book her future can be enriched.