In her stunning debut novel, Gibbons creates the character of Ellen, who tells her own story of survival, escape, and courage. Told in the first person primarily through flashback from the vantage point of her life in the “Foster” home with her “new mama,” she recounts her mother’s suicide and her father’s abuse and alcoholism. Shuttled from her dangerous home to a brief respite with her art teacher, her dying grandmother’s home, her mean aunt’s, and finally to a home in which she’s finally safe, Ellen’s voice is so moving for its combination of honesty and hopefulness, even in the midst of death and abuse.
A primary theme of the novel is the idea of family, as Ellen continues to imagine what the word means. She plays “catalog” by herself, picking out pictures of the things she imagines are needed to complete a real family, from cute babies to camping equipment. She imagines coming up with a shopping list that she could take to a store “if they made such a store and say to the man behind the counter give me this and this and this. And he would hand you back a home” (94). While she lives with her father, the closest to family she experiences is with her “colored” friend Starletta and her parents, who pick cotton for a living. Though originally Ellen believes herself to be superior to them because of her whiteness, by the end of the novel she realizes that this attitude to have been a complete mistake, a realization which leads her to feel even more gratitude for Starletta’s friendship.
Ellen’s coping mechanisms throughout the trauma that has pervaded her young life are astonishing, hilarious, and heartbreaking. After her terribly mean grandmother dies, she arranges all of the artificial flowers in the house in a circle around her corpse in an attempt to decorate her enough to make her pleasing to Jesus. Explaining why she enjoys telling herself the same stories repeatedly, she says, “You see if you tell yourself the same tale over and over again enough times then the tellings become separate stories and you will generally fool yourself into forgetting you only started with one solitary season out of your life” (49). Or when the school counselor expresses concern that she has started signing her name as “Ellen Foster” on her schoolwork, she explains, “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. Foster” (88). Ellen is quite frank about her struggling and suffering, but she is equally determined to survive.