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The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster A Novel Kaye Gibbons Harcourt: 218 pp., $23

January 08, 2006|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah | Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is at work on a book of nonfiction about downtown Los Angeles.

KAYE GIBBONS' 1987 novel, "Ellen Foster," is a breath-taker of a book. It opens with a young girl, Ellen, thinking of ways to kill her battering, drunkard father. "I would figure out this way or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy." He manages to get the job of dying done on his own, a year after her ill, exhausted mother overdoses on heart medication and dies with Ellen curled up in bed next to her. Ellen is shrugged from one unwelcoming relative to the next; if they don't evict her, they too die on her. Searching for a haven, she eyes the other families in her North Carolina town, making "the list you would 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." When she does find a loving foster home, it's no thanks to any adult's help.

It was from this safe space at age 11 that she narrated "Ellen Foster," interweaving the story of her past with that of life with her "new mama." They read as parallel presents -- it was almost as if Gibbons had invented a new verb tense to show the workings of a child's mind, a child carrying around loss as real as the biscuit she held at breakfast. Ellen was survival smart; she fed herself TV dinners with their "dab of dessert," until she made a complete and methodical plan to be taken in by the foster lady who served a breakfast that matched the picture on the cereal box. Ellen was bookish smart too, but Ellen wasn't so smart that she strained credibility, and Gibbons deftly wrote ways for Ellen to narrate right through the moments when the adult world confounded her. Slow down and "OK, go on," Ellen repeatedly tells a social worker who talks over her. And at the times when adults' reasoning defied reason, it seemed right that Gibbons let Ellen become silent altogether. The gaps in Ellen's undeveloped consciousness served as a free space in which readers had to sit with their own questions. Ellen names seasons, but not precise years, leaving the reader to wonder, when exactly is this that "colored" families are still chopping white people's cotton? Later than one might have imagined, we later learn.

In short, Ellen Foster was a rare triumph of a child narrator. She lodged herself in your consciousness -- so real, so clear of voice, that you forgot she was the invention of a writer. Ellen's was a chain of woe so long that it shouldn't have been credible, but you believed every word of this girl: battered, orphaned, homeless, overworked and under-helped.

It is so good to see Ellen again.

In Gibbons' sequel, "The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster," Ellen is still off-the-charts smart. At 13, she's out of the classroom and assigned to independent study. Mornings at school, Ellen sits outdoors, dispensing with homeroom by answering roll call with a yell toward the classroom window. Then she spends the day in the school library with the librarian, who is the lunchroom lady reassigned for less strenuous duty.

In ninth grade, Ellen writes a letter to the president of Harvard University requesting early admission. She explains the bleak educational prospects available to her locally: "[T]he private school here is the Academy of the New Dawn Apocalypse, and the school board said forced busing was enough upheaval so they cannot allow students to bend the rules to skip grades or change schools, unless a person needs Braille materials or rails."

Her foster mother, Laura, recommends a humanities program at Johns Hopkins. Reading the brochure, Ellen is stunned to learn that "a weekend in Baltimore runs about what I thought college costs. It's too much." But Ellen's friends help her earn money by paying her to do their English homework. "[Y]ou could choose a precomposed poem for two dollars or get a custom-made one for four.... Sonnets would've been five if they'd been assigned ... but teachers didn't because it was equal to requiring students to explain the hydrogen bomb."

It's still Ellen, but something is awry. By virtue of her age, we should have more to work with -- but we actually see less. Ellen has become oddly straightforward, getting her thinking begun and settled in neat, clean chapters. She seems contained rather than matured. Once, we could see how Ellen organized her mind, planned her footsteps, thought of "ways and tricks" to bear life. Now we see the hand of a writer who seems unable to bear having any more of life happen to her protagonist. The ghost of a mother is beatified instead of haunting. And the past is further tamed, with new-found documents reorganizing Ellen's difficult memories.

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