Growing Up

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Ellen Foster, a novel by Kaye Gibbons, is a story about a young girl growing up. In the beginning Ellen is living in a terrifying world and her identity has been predetermined by the thoughts of her family and community. Six homes later, Ellen is finally able to find her true self. Ellen matures and gains her own identity throughout the novel.

Part of Ellen?s identity, in the beginning of the novel, is the need for safety and security in her life. Money satisfies her need because she has seen it as the driving force in people?s lives. This has caused Ellen to become greedy. Her feelings did change when she went to her mama?s mama?s house. There she found that no amount of allowances could make her happy in a home where she was forced to work in the cotton fields. Her stay at Aunt Nadine?s also supported this new view of money not meaning so much after all.

Ellen saw Nadine and Dora fixed on material things. When she tried to give them a heartfelt gift, they rejected it. The definitive example of Ellen?s changing opinion on money is when she arrives at her new mama?s house with a bag of money. She is ready to trade in all her savings for love. This final act resolves all her feelings over money. It is neither her responsibility nor an important part of her identity anymore.

Ellen?s initial racism comes from her southern setting and the social standard of the time. She finds herself torn between Starletta and the feelings she inherited from her family. At one point Ellen is so conflicted in her identity that she goes to stay with Starletta but refuses to drink from the same cup. There is a sign of change when Ellen befriends Mavis, another black American at her mama?s mama?s house. She finds herself drawn to Mavis? pleasant family and secretly spies on them. By observing the life of Mavis up close, Ellen comes to realize that black people have had tough lives that they did not necessarily choose. Ellen feels a connection to her own suffering and realizes that these people have had it even worse because they have suffered a longer time. By the end of the novel Ellen is able to let her true identity shine through. By her own choosing she fully accepts Starletta and invites her over making sure everyone knows about it. Ellen is now a person without prejudice.

Personal responsibility is a strong characteristic of Ellen that makes up her identity. However, in Ellen, personal responsibility has forced her to grow up too fast. Before finding her new mama, Ellen was responsible for almost every aspect of her life and sometimes even her mother?s and her mama?s mama?s lives. She bought her own clothes and found her own places to live continuously searching for a suitable family. Her new mama ended up being the answer. When Ellen is taken in and is shown kindness, she finally feels comfortable enough to pass the burden of adulthood back to her new mama. Her new identity, is now one of balance between the ability to grow and still experience childhood.

It was Ellen?s strong faith in good that lead her to find her own identity. While her identity has changed, she is now living a better life because she is happy.