Kaye Gibbons launched Ellen Foster in 1986 to great acclaim. Ellen was a fully-realized original character who navigated her tumultuous life with courage and tenacity. We are still rooting for her more than two decades later in the self-narrated sequel The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster.
The novel opens with a letter to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, from the unstoppable fifteen-year-old heroine. She tells him that she has taken the unorthodox step of applying directly to the head of the university because she knows hers is an unconventional bid but she wants him to know she is quite serious. Ellen is settled in a safe and loving home with Laura, a foster mother who protects and nurtures her fiercely. It turns out her IQ is off the charts and so she follows a program of independent learning and decides she will find a way to finance early-early acceptance to Harvard to pursue her goals of majoring in English and medicine, researching non-traditional cures for epidemics, and combining nutrition and poetry in a developing-nation instructional outreach. Her ambition is as oversize and dramatic as her life.
Ellen has a great heart and supports her intellectually-challenged friends in the southern backwater where she lives. But she struggles with the demons of her former life: a clinically depressed mother who loved her but committed suicide; an abusive alcoholic father and a caretaker grandmother–both dead; an aunt who kicked her out of the house one Christmas and stole her inheritance and her mother’s letters and jewelry. Ellen is aware of her emotional fissures but she is plucky, determined and unwavering in her belief that she can achieve great things.
Gibbons has created a second coming-of-age novel around Ellen Foster. The child who survived calamitous loss and abuse is the teen who tries to adjust to the first real home and security she has ever known while imagining a future for herself that is far from average. An old friend who is more than a bit slow decides to marry her; she shields Starletta, a younger developmentally-delayed black child, from bullying. Ellen battles a bad case of nerves on a solo train trip to a summer program for gifted children. At Johns Hopkins University’s camp for the gifted, she finds a shallow, privileged, ego-driven, competitive cohort of talented but arrogant kids who think she’s a rube. Back home, the swindler aunt resurfaces in rumors about the true nature of Ellen’s inheritance. Laura guides her through all this to slowly accept that someone has her back and believes in her.
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster is warm, real, funny, sad and brave—just like its eponymous heroine. And it has a fairytale ending that you can’t help feeling Ellen has earned. So does her new pen pal “Your friend, Derek C. Bok”.
The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster Kaye Gibbons | Harcourt 2006