About the Author
KAYE GIBBONS is the author of seven bestselling novels. Her first novel, Ellen Foster, was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. That novel, as well as A Virtuous Woman, was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Hometown:Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 5, 1960
Place of Birth:Nash County, North Carolina
Education:Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
Read an Excerpt
Anyone considering making an underage change in life, such as who you're going to live with, should know there's no way to avoid the government getting in on the decision, so try to be kind to the lady they'll send with a stack of tests and try to stay calm and do your best on them. I moved in here three years ago on Christmas Day of 1971, knowing as I knocked on the door that I was choosing this particular replacement for life with my mother because the foster mother, Laura, had the kind of home you'd be out of your mind not to settle into for good.
My family was either dead or crazy, so there wasn't the fallback of concerned loved ones. In fact, my mother's sister, Nadine, who looks sane in public, had created a no-room-at-the-inn situation during her and her daughter Dora's festivities that caused me to strike out walking for Laura's house.
The next summer Laura notified the government that all was well and they could go ahead and draw up her parental rights paperwork. Lo and behold a letter arrived to say Social Service was fine with our arrangement as long as I could pass the mental stability tests meant to prove whether I was too much of a damaged goods personality to live with a nice individual permanently or if I needed to be demoted into a more routine nightmare orphan home.
When Laura noticed me at the kitchen table with the letter and a resuscitated nail-biting habit, she said, You can't prepare for tests like these, Ellen, and when I called to say it's been nothing but a joy having you here, and I think I'd know by now if I needed to be sleeping with my eyes open because you were across the hall plotting waking nightmares, the woman said the tests were mandatory but they're a formality. There's nothing to worry about unless you chew your fingers so far down you can't write the answers.
She took me in for the tests the following Saturday morning, and just as I made the last multiple choice decision on whether I'd rather watch television or play baseball the lady told Laura and me to pardon the surprise but I needed to be shut up alone for another two hours with a kind of raw intelligence test they tacked on to the mental health portion. I said it was fine, just let me go to the bathroom and sharpen my pencil, not mentioning my suspicion that this was a fresh trick.
Laura took a breath and quietly blew her words out toward the lady, telling her in a way that could sound rude if you don't imagine it correctly, Well, she's here. She's willing and more than capable. I know the government's always created a certain amount of make-work, but it's worrisome for you to double tests that don't matter.
The lady said every time the court decided a child's life, the individual had to be run through particular tests before they could more or less turn you out into a new future. Pardon her again for not telling us about yet another final detail sooner, but a letter would be coming with instructions on when and where to take me for a thorough physical, courtesy of the government, down to the eyes, ears, and teeth.
She was smiling, hopeful we'd appreciate a free medical visit, but Laura blew gently again, saying, I'll take care of it. We have a family doctor. Shouldn't my fitness as a parent be a concern?
Laura wasn't being conceited, only picturing us in a line of teenage mothers with babies on their hips sucking root beer out of blue plastic milk bottles. Sorry to say it but I filled out that scene in the bathroom. When I got back and saw Laura running my pencils through a motorized sharpener, her tight method of movement and the way she dashed back her hair made her favor Ava Gardner, definite-edged in the midst of murky people, like in The Night of the Iguana when she's managing the old maid and the traveling women. The lady was fixated on Laura. She hadn't answered Laura yet, but she finally said, You can take her to the Mayo Clinic if you want to, and we know you're more than fit to take permanent custody of Ellen. How many pencils does she need?
More than she was led to believe, Laura told her, but since this is the last time, I'll let it be, and hope she'll be ready when I come for her. You know, it's Saturday.
She didn't say she was aggravated that the second test made us miss Willy Wonka and interrupted her plan to help catch me up on ordinary events by taking me to one childhood-type movie a month. She was aware of how when I was little, we stayed inside the house. The thought of heading out to the matinee movies or the family drive-in theater never arose due to different extremes. Now it was another thing available just to get up and go do. After American Bandstand, after the other two foster girls and I ate some sandwiches off the fold-out tables, we'd make the first afternoon showing and then walk around downtown, eating hot dogs and window shopping.
After the tests, Laura let me in the car, not all there, mumbling to me, And I'm even sorrier the downtown theater's switching over from Willy Wonka to Art Garfunkel, of all people, in something you can't see and I don't want to. We need another theater. Who here would buy a ticket to watch Art Garfunkel with his clothes off?
I said, It's okay about missing the movie. They'll probably bring it back on the summer daytime schedule next year.
But you'll be too old for it then, she said. I'm aware you already are, but I thought it was important. How do you think you did on the tests?
I told her fine but draining, so I probably would've passed out in the theater. She said, Well, it's worked out for the best I suppose. We've got ten miles of straight road home if you want to rest your head in my lap.
I was sore from tensing in a hard chair for so long and didn't feel like touching right then, but I didn't want her to take it as I was upset about the movie and do the kind of out of her way thing she was prone to do and suggest we follow it to the next town. I was also guilty from being relieved I didn't have to sit through Willy Wonka and come out jangled up after two hours of watching overly eager singers and have to fix my face to say I'd just had a red-letter time of my life. Sweaty and sticky candy factory children hopping and singing around the chocolate vats, like they just happen to be living out the words to the songs, could irk you. I get more of a bang out of stories of realism that take place in the house or in the city, nothing on the open range, no forest or jungle except for Heart of Darkness, and except for Moby Dick, no man versus nature.
I was glad to feel her fingers on my hair though when I remembered the dark undersoul Willy Wonka had in the book and wondered if they'd allowed enough of him in the movie that you'd come out nervous about opening candy bars. People my age are old enough to know better, but I know some on my road, including myself, who're jubus about unwrapping a new cake of soap because of the nightmare possibility of seeing an innocent, trapped face staring up at you, permanently pressed there after a bad snatched hostage ordeal at Old Soap Molly's house. If you've lived a certain way and already have a lasting set of damages, you avoid what frightening fantasies you can.
It was only ten miles, but the weight of Laura's hand on my head and the tires underneath us knocked me out. I went straight to bed and just as I fell away, I was jerked back by the idea that the government was an expert at making you wait. I was facing another span of time I'd had to get to the other side of, not live wholly inside. After a month had passed, Laura called the Social Service lady, who said she couldn't help the backup, but remember the tests were only formalities. I wanted to shout and ask her if she'd ever needed permission to call her home a home or been jolted out of ease she'd trusted would come because the world couldn't possibly keep turning the wrong way. I pictured her arriving on the scene when I was too far past my ability to endure it and wreck what there was left of the life I'd reduced to reading with bleeding eyes and crawling to the supper table and crying on a pallet in the Easy Reader section of the library at school.
Laura would lean against the refrigerator, on the phone with my friends' mothers telling different versions of how tragic it was to watch me wait and what lengths she was tempted to go to if she didn't need to set a patient and legal example for me and the two other girls living with us, who started behaving like I was on their nerves for more than being odd now. Although Laura was evenhanded, they saw favoritism everywhere. There was nothing I could do except stay off to myself and do only the most basic portions of living the grouped-together life while they slid farther and farther downhill from the high state of niceness they seemed to enjoy when I'd moved in.
Laura explained that it was part of my nature to work off steam doing things like chattering about the tests and cleaning what wasn't dirty, and they needed to respect what the basic notion of being tested meant to me. She told them, We all have a way we'd prefer people to see us, and Ellen's very conscious of her abilities and nervous about a judgment made about them the same way I'd be uncomfortable if somebody suddenly decided to measure my ability to run a house, the same way you'd be if you had to jump through hoops before your families, well, something large like that, could, well, be sorted out.
Laura left the room quickly, with everybody understanding the three of them weren't close enough for her to open up the can of worms on the wicked predicaments they'd been in. She tended to them well and hoped it helped, knowing she couldn't mention their histories and fates without one of them defending the kind of person and behavior that deserved nothing. They stayed shut up together, blowing and sullen. I overheard them wondering if I'd have to leave if I failed, saying compared and contrasted to them I had it made with a dead family and an unknown future. Their mood improved when it dawned on one that at least they'd have the freedom to roam once they were out from under Laura's roof. You'd think they would've sympathized with my fears of getting dragged off to some gnashing-teeth type of place and suffering to sleep on a spotted mattress, hunched over, holding my tennis shoes and clean socks with the blue dingleballs from getting robbed off my feet by some bloodthirsty orphans.
Finally, the lady got here and got to the point pretty immediately, saying that figuring out what to do about me had taken more time than she'd expected because they'd graded the tests twice and then had to consider more complicated plans after my IQ popped up in the range where people are prone to losing their ration and nursing along gibberish plots to overthrow the government. Then she wanted to stress that my destiny could also simply be nonproductive.
Laura said, Okay then, we need to put this news, such as it is, toward making the rest of her life better than it's been. It sounds simple, but it isn't. You know what I mean? But this has to mean she can stay. Am I right?
Yes, the lady said, and what Ellen needs to realize her full potential involves nothing you can't handle, although I've had some troubling doubts about her school. The prisons are filled with people who dipped and dipped and then dallied out of boredom, so if she's dissatisfied with a particular class or drifting, she can study that subject independently in the library, one or two or all of them, whatever works best.
It was only Mrs. Delacroix in the library, and even though she'd gladly give you her all, that didn't come out to too much. She'd run the lunchroom until she suffered mistakes during a leg vein operation, so now she was bound to a wheelchair and waiting for a lawyer to make her doctor pay for destroying her ambulation. She had a different way of speaking she chalked up to Louisiana, and although I loved listening to her, you don't want somebody stewing their language around taking a stab at training you for college. I explained some concerns, such as the only book Mrs. Delacroix had read was The Power of Positive Thinking, and me being left to wander around unorganized in so much information and asked whether help was coming from anywhere else. The lady described more about the lesson plans for self-guided people in my category and said she'd explained all this to the principal. There'd also be bottomless advice available from the college education teachers who'd drawn up the guidelines.
Fighting not to see myself reclused in with Mrs. Delacroix, changing her leaking vein bandages and accumulating nervous isolation tics, I told her I got along with people very well and had been going around with the same group from my road since we started to school. I wasn't the kind who slopes around and eats lunch alone. You wouldn't see me, I told her, and say I look lonesome.
She swore this wouldn't cut me off from civilization, and I'd be able to do as much or as little as I wanted to do extra-curricularly. Then looking at Laura, the lady said, Ellen's imagination's getting away with her, and that's part of what we've been mindful to keep satisfied.
Pardon me, Laura told her, but even if it was possible to keep someone with such a high curiosity entirely occupied, I don't think the goal of giving Ellen what she needs should be to keep her out of trouble, which she's shown no inclination to get into anyway.
She told Laura she agreed it was miraculous I'd stayed free of delinquencies, and then she handed me the stack of outline materials and the court papers which had been stamped to approve me permanently. Our first job is to see to the body and the mind, she said, and I think it's safe to say that between your new situation at school and this wonderful home, you should flourish, but I want to remind you that to whom much is given, much is expected.
I had to ask, Who expects it? How much is much?
Sighing so long and hard the wind almost knocked me down, she said, Ellen, you need to consider how fortunate you are. You need to thank your living God to be alive and well and blessed with the extraordinary good sense He gave you, and if you're ever called upon to endure again, I trust, after everything you've been through, you'll be the kind of young woman who will suffer gladly.
So, that was it, I told Laura. I never have to peel the back of my legs off government seating again.
To celebrate, she had an outsized, overly stuffed floral chair I'd tried out downtown delivered to the corner of my room, and for the next three years, if you were looking for me in the house, if I wasn't in the kitchen or Laura's room, I was in the Mamie Eisenhower chair, reading books from the library the handyman veteran installed in the living room after the college education office told Laura about ordering used books from the mail-order professor's catalog. There's a ladder leaned against the shelves, not on roller wheels on a gold bar, just the one the man left behind after Laura mistakenly paid him in full before he'd finished the final touches. We made it match by stripping off the paint drips and spills and staining it the New England home library deep tone of chocolate.
The system was fine for the first two years. Then last year Holden Caulfield began eating worry into me about whether I wanted to go through with crossing the road to the regular rural high school, which would be for all intents and purposes my old school but with ashtrays outside the main hall. I knew I couldn't keep up with Holden and his crowd on matters such as clothing and leather luggage, but competing for grades didn't seem that difficult. I had the advantage of a history of working like a dog while they seemed to give themselves a great deal of time off for sports and touring dates around New York City.
I made sure to thank Laura for everything she'd done before I went into her bedroom one evening and sprung on her how I needed more. She had house and family magazines spread around, and when she shoved them over for me to sit down and tell her what I needed, I had to say that all I knew was I was feeling more and more squirmy about spending three years at a school with everybody whose ambitions were lowered down to just the rural style of life. Since the only choice of private education was the Apocalypse school, I didn't know what to do about this sensation that my future was being threatened into impossible.
Excerpted from "The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster"
Copyright © 2006 Kaye Gibbons.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read a lot and this is the first time I threw a book out half read - not saving it to pass along along to friends and family. I found the language and long run on sentences irritating. The writing style alienated me from Ellen Foster whom I had remembered dearly from years before. I do have on my shelves several earlier works of Kaye Gibbons but I would label this book 'disappointing'.
Kaye Gibbons has done an outstanding job with this sequel. Books hardly ever make me cry but Ellen's insight into her mother's past is one of the most poignant moments in the book. If you fell in love with Ellen in the first book, you'll surely fall in love all over again after reading this sequel.
Ellen Foster is back in Kaye Gibbons' new novel and she's older, wiser, and as much fun as ever. It is always a joy to read an Ellen Foster book so I hope that this one will be followed by another. And the ending in this one is just plain fantastic! I will not say anything more since I do not wish to spoil it for other readers but it's one of the best endings I've ever read. And I live in a house with about 900 books, so that's saying something exceptionally good!
Ellen Foster returns in as spirited, poignant and fiercely independent a voice as ever. With the base of a secure home 15 year old Ellen is able to feel the impact of her mother's suicide, observe class snippiness of the best and brightest at an educational camp and hang in there with her less gifted friends. A very welcome reappearance of one of the two best portraits of growing up in poverty (the other being Cynthia Rylant's Missing May) in decades.
I love to read. I love to escape into a book and forget about the present day world outside my door. So when authors these days insist on spilling their politics into their works of fictin I find it cheap and dirty. If you want to write about politics, write a political book. Do not sucker in your readers by hiding your rants and beliefs in the middle of a work of fiction. I find that sneaky, unprofesstional and weak. Kaye Gibbons, as much as I like your books, I will never buy another one.