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The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to approach this harrowing yet often hilarious story of an abandoned child's search for her place in the world.
- Ellen is searching for a home. How does she define home at the beginning of the novel, and how does she refine her definition during the course of the narrative? What examples of family life and of parenthood has she had to guide her? How do the various parents she observes measure up? What message does Ellen receive during the course of the book about parents and parenthood? Is Gibbons's point that, in the end, family members are unreliable? That one can rely on no one but oneself?
- Ellen is a person who is inclined to make lists; she is very concerned with order. What attempts does she make to introduce order into her own life? What is the source of this need for order and what light does it shed on Ellen's instinct for survival? How does the theme of control and personal responsibility come up in relation to the novel's other characters? How does it relate to the deaths of Ellen's mother and grandmother?
- Why have none of the concerned adults in Ellen's life--her teachers, Starletta's parents, Julia and Roy, Mavis--been able to rescue her from the dreadful and dangerous life she leads within her own family? How does this failure reflect upon the nature of Ellen's society? What is it about the life even of a small and inter-connected community that keeps people from being able to help a desperate child? Is the legal system at fault? The social one?
- "People say they do not try to be white" (p.29), Ellen says about Starletta's parents. What does this tell us about the society they live in? What does Ellen's initial description of Starletta's home reveal about Ellen herself? What details in her narrative expose her assumptions about black people? By extension, what do they show about her own vision of herself and her family? How do these assumptions change, and what causes then to do so? How does Ellen's observation of Mavis and her family contribute to her changing attitudes? Ellen's grandmother said she would learn something from picking cotton. What, in fact, does she learn?
- "Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how to treat somebody anyway," Ellen reflects. "But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it" (p.126). What discovery has Ellen made here? Why is Starletta's weekend visit to significant to Ellen? Do you think the author is saying that Ellen is now a person without prejudice?
- The South's violent history of slavery, war and racial hatred is the unstated background for this story. How does Gibbons make us aware of its silent presence? To what degree is Ellen herself aware of it? Is the contemporary black experience as she observes it still based upon the fact of slavery, paid or unpaid? What is Ellen's way of personally coping with this tragic history?
- The judge who awarded Ellen's custody to her grandmother expresses the common idea that a child should be with her own family, but Ellen rejects. "What do you do when the judge talks about he family society's cornerstone but you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been a crumbly old brick?" [p. 56] she asks herself. Does Gibbons imply that a child's being with its biological family is not, after all, that important? Which is more important, the family you choose or the family you are born into?