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The return of Ellen Foster

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Author Kaye Gibbons continues the story of her most memorable character, Ellen Foster, in a new novel, "The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster." (Photo by Marion Ettlinger)
It's been 20 years since author Kaye Gibbons burst onto the literary scene with her novel about a resilient, determined little girl named Ellen Foster. One reviewer wrote that Ellen instantly became one of the great child characters in American literature.

Now Gibbons has written a sequel to that novel, called "The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster." It's the latest selection of the Talking Volumes book club, sponsored by MPR, The Loft Literary Center and the Star Tribune. Some critics say the authenticity that was so convincing the first time around is missing in Gibbons' new book.

St. Paul, Minn. — Deeply autobiographical, it took author Kaye Gibbons years to admit that "Ellen Foster" radiated such raw truth because it wasn't just a story created by an astonishingly talented writer. Instead, it was a story forged in the tragedy of her own childhood, and told -- at a still tender age -- with unflinching candor.

Craig Jarvis, a features writer for Gibbons' hometown paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, says when he read back through the profiles his paper had done of Gibbons over the years, he realized that in the beginning Gibbons didn't want to claim Ellen's life as her own.

"I think the first in-depth story we wrote about her 20 years ago she was flatly denying it. And then when you read over these other clips over the next few years, she kind of gives a little and says, 'It's sort of based on my life and people I know, but it's not really autobiographical.' Somewhere along the line she dropped all that and said, 'Yes, it's completely 'autobiographical,'" says Jarvis.

"In fact, what we know of her life it really follows that. She grew up in an area an hour and a half east of Raleigh, which is pretty ... countrified country. And her parents both died, her mother commited suicide," says Jarvis. "She was raised briefly by some relatives and then ended up in a foster home. It's exactly how the story plays out."

"Ellen Foster" begins with what must be one of the most memorable lines in modern literature.

"When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way, and run it down through my head until it got easy."

That's when you know that very little in young Ellen's life will be easy -- not the sharp grief and guilt of her mother's suicide, nor the loneliness in the homes of relatives where she wasn't wanted, nor the desire so sharp to put distance between herself and her abusive father that she drops her family name, and adopts "foster" after entering the foster system.

As I contemplated the new story, I became concerned that her language would be homogenized and her voice weakened from not having spoken for so long. I should've known better.
- Author Kaye Gibbons

"That may not be the name God or my mama gave me, but that is my name now. Ellen Foster. My old family wore the other name out, and I figured I would take the name of my new family. That one is fresh."

Tricia Springstubb, a contributing writer to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, says it was the authenticity of the voice that really propelled Ellen's story.

"The humor, and the way she captured the setting and the people of North Carolina, just that whole milieu, was so vividly portrayed," says Springstubb. "And I guess the terror of it. And even though you know it's going to turn out well for her in the end, from the very beginning you viscerally go through what she did, her father's abuse and the loss of her mother."

We leave Ellen, at 12 years old, happily living with the woman she calls her new mama.

"I have some things to work on, but at least I am somewhere friendly and nothing new bad has happened to me since I got here. That is something when you think about it."

And nothing new, bad or good, did happen -- for 20 years. Ellen's creator, author Kaye Gibbons, married, had children, divorced and married again. She wrote six other novels, battled what she thought was bipolar disorder. And then, she began to wonder what had happened to Ellen. The author's note on the opening page of the new Ellen Foster book reflects on this lengthy absence.

"As I contemplated the new story, I became concerned that her language would be homogenized and her voice weakened from not having spoken for so long. I should've known better."

And yet, the voice of this new novel is precisely what critic Tricia Springstubb thinks went astray.

"(In) the sequel, the obstacles are a lot more internal. I think Kaye Gibbons asks a lot more of the reader, to believe that we're hearing the voice of a child dealing with those kinds of things," says Springstubb. "It sounds an awful lot like she's on a therapist's couch to me, a lot of what she says. And it just doesn't have the same -- it sounds more written than spoken."

Or it may just be that Ellen, at 15 years old, is no longer in such serious conflict. She's still living with Laura, her foster mother, and scoring so high in IQ tests that she's applied to Harvard at 15.

There are poignant revelations about her mother's final days, and the extent of the treachery of her double-dealing relatives But Craig Jarvis says Ellen's obvious contentment seems to have taken the edge off the character.

"I think there are going to be hard-core Ellen Foster fans who are going to disagree with me. I always start to call them a cult, but when I interviewed her editor at Harcourt, she said, 'No, it's not a cult -- it suggests something underground. And this is a book that's taught in high schools around the country,'" says Jarvis. "So, OK, it's not a cult. But she has a really strong following, and I think that everything she writes will be fine with them."

"And that seems to be the reaction with this novel. They're very happy it's coming out. They've been dying to find out what happened to Ellen," says Jarvis. "It wasn't as raw and immediate as Ellen Foster, which she wrote when she was still in college, and she'd barely come out of living from this childhood herself."

And yet, that tranquility we find in Ellen may just be a reflection of where Kaye Gibbons finds herself today. She told the News and Observer that she's discovered a new clarity and contentment, and that there will be no more 20-year gaps in Ellen's life.

She writes in her author's note: "I intend to revisit her every few years and write about her transformations."

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