I cannot think of the spirited and indomitable eleven-year old protagonist Ellen Foster in Kaye Gibbons' novel by the same name without thinking, at the same time, of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 1950, in which he declares that it is "the writer's duty to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice. . ." through the literature that he or she writes and through the characters he or she creates. Ellen, the narrator of her own story, is the quintessence of an indomitable spirit manifested through her inexhaustible voice, as she picks her way, singlehandedly, through a minefield of trial and error decisions and efforts, by the time she is eleven, to find a home where she feels safe from physical and psychological abuse that she has endured at the hands of her father and relatives, both before and after the death of her frail mother. Never characterizing herself as a victim, from the first sentence she utters, never asking for pity, Ellen, with remarkable candor, reacts to, responds to, and acts upon life as it is thrown at her. It is this young-in-years but old-in-perception protagonist, Ellen Foster, that my tenth-grade students at New Haven Academy will come to know from the inside out as they explore how Kaye Gibbons lets her readers in on the multi-facets of the character she has created, and how discovering the facets often depends at least as much upon the reader as on the character.
Having been both riveted and enchanted by Ellen's spunky yet heart-wrenching character, and planning to teach the novel next year to my tenth-grade classes at New Haven Academy, I knew when I read Professor Jill Campbell's description of her seminar, The Art of Reading People: Characters, Expression, Interpretation, and then heard her discuss this topic at the open house, I was compelled to apply for her seminar and to write my unit on the character of Ellen Foster, so deftly crafted by Kaye Gibbons.