Don Noble
3:17 pm
Mon January 16, 2006

Ellen Foster/The Life All Around Me

Gibbons, in 1987, at the tender age of 26, published a minor masterpiece, "Ellen Foster." This is a small book in the voice of a ten-year-old North Carolina girl whose mother dies, drunken father dies, selfish, vain grandmother dies, who may have been sexually abused, and whose aunt and cousin are rotten and cruel.

Kaye Gibbons is a member in good standing of the North Carolina literary mafia that includes Reynolds Price, Allan Gurganus, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, Ron Rash, and now Daniel Wallace from Alabama and Lee Smith from Virginia (by immigration).

Gibbons, in 1987, at the tender age of 26, published a minor masterpiece, "Ellen Foster." This is a small book in the voice of a ten-year-old North Carolina girl whose mother dies, drunken father dies, selfish, vain grandmother dies, who may have been sexually abused, and whose aunt and cousin are rotten and cruel. The girl Ellen finally finds a safe harbor in a foster home and adopts that word as her last name.

The novel Ellen Foster was rightly and extravagantly praised by no less than Eudora Welty and Walker Percy and has become a classic of contemporary Southern fiction. Ellen's voice is often compared to the voice of Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield for its honesty, freshness, and insights into human nature. It is a voice of innocence, in a sense unbrainwashed by society, culture, school, etc.

Now, nearly twenty years later, after an impressive career which includes six more books, Kaye Gibbons has published a sequel: "The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster."

In this novel, Ellen is fifteen and has turned out to be not merely resourceful and clever but a kind of genius. The novel opens with a very amusing letter Ellen has written, in 1974, to Dr. Derek C. Bok, president of Harvard, asking to be admitted in the fall since grades nine through twelve in her hometown high school don't seem to have much to offer her.

Ellen suggests that she can work really hard, can add some variety to the Harvard undergraduate population, and, she says, "My childhood was the kind that saturates you with quick ambition to think through and begin the next episode of your life." Although letters, journal entries, and so on are often regarded as digressions which can impede the flow of fiction, in this book Ellen's letter to President Bok, and his reply, are two of the best parts.

Also emotionally strong is the scene where Ellen reads the notes of the admitting physician who interviewed Ellen's mother at the state mental hospital. She was sick, exhausted, and depressed, but her loving thoughts were all of Ellen.

Unfortunately, most of "The Life All Around Me" lacks this power. In the original, Ellen moves from a state of being at risk, alone and frightened and angry, to a safe harbor. Her perilous situation creates concern and suspense. Her journey to safety is exciting, admirable.

This novel, by comparison, is too episodic and more like "a year in the life." Ellen learns a few things about her larcenous aunt and cousin, and there is a quite good scene at the county fair freak show, but mainly the novel lacks tension.

"Ellen Foster" opens, "When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it through my head until it got easy." In this novel, Ellen is living comfortably and securely with her gentle and generous foster mother, Laura. Her friend Luther wants to marry her, but that is not the same kind of problem as figuring out how to save your own life by killing your father.

This novel is, alas, like most sequels, not as strong as the original. Even more distressing, to this reader, at least, is that Gibbons plans to make this a seven- or eight-part series on Ellen Foster, taking Ellen and Gibbons through the rest of their lives, as Ellen attends Harvard, becomes a physician and perhaps a writer as well.

I must confess I don't have a really good feeling about this. If Gibbons goes ahead, I fear the result will be more like "Rocky VII" than the last volumes of "Remembrance of Things Past."

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