Ellen at the Ball: Ellen Foster as a Cinderella Tale
"Yes, yes, I have heard of Cinderella, but who is Ellen Foster?" Ah! You are in for a treat. Meet Ellen how I met her...
When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy, I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.
The way I like best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he'd be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something's the matter with my daddy. When they come in the house I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking allover.
But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the county moved me out. I heard how they found him shut in the house dead and everything. Next thing I know he's in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four. (p. 1)
The powerful and revealing introduction to Kay Gibbons' Ellen Fosterimmediately binds reader and character. Gibbons, a resident of North Carolina,uses a piece of Southern fiction to explore the effects of society on a child.
In the novel, the reader is privileged to information, conversations, and thoughts from eleven-year-old Ellen's point of view. Her voice combines the wisdom of an adult experienced in death, abuse, and neglect with the refreshing honesty of a child. By incorporating themes of inculcated prejudice, family conflict, and individual survival in modern Cinderella story, Ellen Foster becomes a meaningful story for young adults.
In 1992 Oryx Press published Cinderella, a cross-cultural collection of Cinderella tales by Judy Sierra. Charles Perrault's "Cinderella," the Russian"Vasilisa the Beautiful," and the Appalachian "Ash Pet" are among the tales in the Sierra collection. The Cinderella tale is passed down through generations and cultures because of its triumph of good over evil, rewarding of steadfast kindness and honesty, and happy ending. Threads of the Cinderella stories run through Ellen Foster.
Initially, Ellen lives with her sick mother and her abusive father. Ellen'smother has a heart condition but eventually dies from an intentional overdose of medication. The county moves Ellen out of her father's home. Like Cinderella after the death of her mother and father, Ellen is without the support and care of an immediate family. The heroines of both stories are young, alone, and left to the mercy of bitter relatives.
Cinderella is under the care of her father's second wife who is wicked,selfish, and vain. Comparatively, Ellen is taken to her "Mama's mama" to live.Unwillingly, the grandmother takes in the offspring of her misled daughter and her wretched husband. The grandmother punishes Ellen for her father's treatment of her mother. At first, the security and stability of a home makes the Grandmother's temper tolerable. Later, Ellen reveals, "By July I called her the damn witch to myself and all the money she had did not matter anymore" (p. 61).Cinderella's stepmother and Ellen's grandmother are oppressive authorities.
In "Cinderella," Cinderella's cruel stepmother is jealous of Cinderella's beauty and kindness. The stepmother punishes her for these qualities by assigning tedious and ponderous household duties. As mentioned above, inEllen Foster the grandmother is resentful about taking Ellen into her home. After Ellen is found asleep and curled up beside her dead mother, the grandmother blames and punishes her when Ellen moves into the grandmother's house. In the same way that Cinderella is forced to become a servant in her own home by her stepmother, Ellen is taken out to her grandmother's fields to work.Ellen recalls,
Then the biggest lady yelled you better get on a row.... You better get on a row! She yelled again. The boss lady left you here to work not to stand. And I needs to make sure you do it. Now get you a hoe. (p. 63)
Ellen becomes slave labor in a place she considers home.
Cinderella's stepsisters are an additional menace. They constantly bicker between themselves while tossing insults and orders at Cinderella, whose inward and outward beauty spurs on their jealousy and cruelty. Ellen's aunts play the part of the stepsisters. Betsy and Nadine were her mother's sisters. Ellen observes that the sisters "Pass blame back and forth like butter on the table"(p. 92). The sisters do not offer Ellen any relief from her situation. After spending the weekend with Betsy, Ellen assumes that she has a found a permanent, safe refuge. Ellen reports, "[Aunt Betsy] says no and laughs at the same time. I meant you could stay for the weekend and then go back to your own home" (p. 42). Ellen also lives with Nadine and her daughter, Dora, for a time.After a Christmas fiasco
[Nadine] just said for me to get out. To find my evil little self some hole to crawl in. That she didn't want me to begin with. That Betsy didn't want me either. That all she and Dora wanted to do was to live there alone.... (p.114)
The sisters are a further tyranny over Ellen.
Both Cinderella and Ellen have an important thing destroyed or mocked.Cinderella's first dress, her ticket to the ball, is ripped to shreds by the stepsisters as they are spurred on by the stepmother. Ellen, too, has a prize destroyed. For Christmas, Ellen paints a picture for Aunt Nadine and Cousin Dora. Ellen overhears:
Dora asks her mama if she plans to put some old tacky paper frame on their wall.... Nadine says... even though we might think it might be silly or a bit cheap-looking for us we still need to act nice.... Now let's put that picture up just like we think it's the prettiest thing we've ever seen. Then after she's gone and it's just you and me again, we'll take it down. OK? (p. 109)
Ellen offers the most thoughtful gifts she has, her own creation, to Nadine and Dora and receives scorn in return.
As in many children's stories, magic is essential to "Cinderella," and likewise to Ellen Foster. In "Cinderella," the fairy godmother magically removes Cinderella from the oppressive situation for a night. After her night at the ball, Cinderella leaves the stepmother and stepsisters for good. In Ellen Foster, the magician helps to alleviate Ellen's pain. Gibbons writes, "Go ahead and look said the magician. There is nothing to be afraid of. Everything has vanished! See. There is nothing in the box" (p. 70). Ellen feels guilty for the death of her mother. The magician serves to explain the realities of death to Ellen and relieve her fear and pain.
Goldilocks has her hair, the tortoise has his race, and Rapunzel has her hair.Cinderella's trademark is her gown and glass slippers. The gown transforms Cinderella from a dirty, ragged servant to a honored guest at the prince's ball. Ultimately, the gown and slippers are Cinderella's key to freedom from her stepmother and stepsister. Similarly, Ellen is transformed by a dress. She describe it as
a dress you catch somebody's eye with. It is like nothing you have ever seen especially when I put it on and gaze in the store mirror I said Lord I could fall in love with my own self. (p. 98)
Ellen is often critical and unsure of her actions, but the dress gives her confidence. The dress, blue and green with a lace collar, represents a turning point for Ellen. After purchasing the dress, she is on her way to a better life. A life that includes love. Ellen, like Cinderella is prepared for the most important meeting of her life.
The climax and resolution of Cinderella's story come when she meets the prince,falls in love, and after some fairy-tale scrambling, they are married and live happily ever after. Who is Ellen's prince? Ellen's prince is a home where shes wanted and loved. The grandmother dies and Ellen is sent to Nadine's, but Christmas morning is a final shove for Ellen. She leaves Nadine and Dora to seek her prince. Her prince is a woman who takes in foster children. Ellen shows up on her doorstep and explains the situation to the puzzled, yet kind-hearted woman. Ellen relates her new mama's response:
I can't promise anything but if you need a place as badly as it appears then we would welcome you here.... And then she hugged me. She leaned over me and pulled me up next to her and it was just like I wanted it to be. (p. 119)
And so Ellen finds her place, and her name, Ellen Foster.
Ellen Foster includes many other elements, along with the Cinderella motif, that make it suitable and desirable for adolescent audiences.Gibbons' style enhances the novel. It uses flashbacks and Ellen's colorful images to weave the intimate story. The book deals with family relationships,guilt, death, race, and class. Readers will enjoy meeting Ellen and will be sorry to let her go when the book is over.
Melinda L. Franklin teaches English at Antioch High School in Nashville,Tennessee.