Black Ice

Ellen Foster
126 pages; ISBN 0-679-72866-X

by Kaye Gibbons

Guide Contents:
Note to Teachers
Preparing to read
Understanding the text
Exploring the text:
Point of View and Voice

Extending the text

Note to teachers

"Old Ellen," as the eponymous narrator of Kaye Gibbons's first novel calls herself, is actually a spirited, indomitable eleven-year-old girl from the backwoods of the Deep South. Ellen Foster is her story, which Gibbons tells us entirely in Ellen's own unique and immediate voice, a voice that seems to come from a place deep inside her, "spoken" on the page as much to herself as it is to the readers of this remarkable book.

Ellen Foster unfolds as a series of events both past and present: the often harrowing situations that occurred as Ellen grew up, and what is happening right before our eyes in the "now" of the pages we are turning. This gives the reader the opportunity to simultaneously live, relive, and reflect upon the experiences of Ellen's life.

Kaye Gibbons uses Ellen's voice not to evoke the pity or simple sympathy we often feel for a child in a coming-of-age story, but instead to make the reader feel the rage that has been Ellen's experience of growing up. The book begins with a sentence that is at once chilling, funny, and resoundingly honest: "When I was young, I would think of ways to kill my daddy." It becomes apparent early in the novel why Ellen harbors such thoughts. Her father is a terrible drunk, a cruel husband, a self-centered profligate who seems hell-bent on destroying himself—and his family. Ellen's mother has borne the trials of marriage as best she could, but wracked by physical pain and reduced to silent domestic servitude by her abusive husband, she can scarcely shield her child from what she herself has endured for so long. As far as Ellen is concerned, "Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death" [p. 2].

The death of Ellen's mother—a death for which her husband is responsible, and which Ellen is helpless to prevent, as much as she is haunted by how she tried to stop it—sets in motion the story of Ellen's Dickensian struggle for atonement and for a place in the world. She must build her own life by a series of willful choices, unflagging faith in her own ability to survive, and dauntless self-assessment. She must do so even in the face of her father's clumsy but menacing sexual advances and his abandonment of his daughter's basic human needs for food and clothing.

Gibbons introduces another theme in Ellen Foster with the character of Starletta, Ellen's only friend and her possible salvation. Starletta and her family are "colored," and thus Ellen's attempts to find comfort, happiness and the sheer joys of childhood with Starletta and her family are tempered by her own feelings about race—feelings that Ellen has unwittingly inherited from her family and her community. For example, Gibbons artfully portrays Starletta and her family's poverty and hardship through the veil of Ellen's ambivalence and racist attitudes: Ellen tells us that she will not drink from a glass that has touched their lips, that she cannot understand how they live in such tight quarters ("All three of them stay in one room. I myself could not stand it. . ." [p. 30]); yet she often wishes to be part of their world.

Throughout her travails, Ellen shows a perspicacity and tenaciousness beyond her years. Her reflections on her life and the disturbed characters who enter and leave it bring her a new understanding of real human nature, even as the events in Ellen Foster teach this young heroine—and the reader—things about race, class, gender, and perhaps the most complex issue of all: how to love one another. Ellen's observations about other people's values and actions touch on larger themes of fate, circumstance, and personal responsibility. Her eye on herself and others is unflinching, but her faith in herself is her salvation: "I am not exactly a vision. But Lord I have good intentions that count" [p. 61].

Preparing to read

Ellen Foster is a work of fiction written in the first-person, a work that uses colloquial language and speech patterns appropriate to its eleven-year-old narrator. You may want to discuss with your students how the coming-of-age genre, as told in the voice of its protagonist, differs from biography or autobiography. Key concepts include the difference between the documented facts and substantiated opinions found in nonfiction as compared with the point-of-view and imaginative narrative process at work in a fictional piece.

In conjunction with reading Ellen Foster, you may also want to consider having your students compare it with other coming-of-age, first-person narratives such as Charles Dickens's David Copperfield; Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; Frank Conroy's Stop-Time; Alice Walker's The Color Purple; Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye; Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street; or Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

The teaching plan that follows is designed to guide your students through Ellen Foster, whether you are involved in whole-class or small-group classroom management. Understanding the Text includes the kind of comprehension questions that are critical to students' ability to understand the story; Exploring the Text directs student attention to the structure and themes at work in the text. The suggested student activities in Extending the Text are suitable for independent or cooperative work.

Understanding the text

Chapter 1

  1. Ellen uses different verb tenses in telling her story. When is this story taking place? How can you know?

Chapter 2

  1. Ellen says she knew her daddy was evil, but ". . . I did not have the proof" [p. 9]. What proof does she now have?

Chapter 3

  1. How does Ellen feel about her aunt Nadine and her cousin Dora?

  2. What clues indicate how Ellen might regard her "new mama"?

Chapter 4

  1. At the funeral, Ellen seems to survey the attendees and describe whom she sees [pp. 19-22]. Which characters does she seem connected to? Which disconnected from?

  2. How does Ellen's narrative answer her own question: "Do I have to watch?" [p. 21]

  3. Who is the magician? [p. 22]

Chapter 5

  1. What details hint at Ellen's age?

  2. What transaction takes place among Ellen's father and his brothers?

  3. Ellen shops for and wraps her own Christmas presents. Why does she do this and why does she feel she has to? What does Ellen mean when she declares she was "very surprised in the spirit of Christmas" [p. 28]?

Chapter 6

  1. Ellen's description of Starletta's home reveals much about Ellen herself. What details show her assumptions about race and class?

  2. Again, Ellen asks "Do I have to watch?" [p. 31]; she reminds herself "I could go" [p. 31], but she doesn't leave Starletta's home. Why not?

  3. In talking about her father and his drinking friends, what does Ellen mean when she says, "You get out before they dream about the honey pie and the sugar plums." [p. 37].

  4. What exactly are the events that cause the narrator to keep repeating "I am Ellen. I am Ellen"? [p. 38]

Chapter 7

  1. Ellen makes several moves in this chapter: to Starletta's house, to Aunt Betsy's house, finally to wherever the school is willing to send her. What is she trying to escape? What is she trying to find?

Chapter 8

  1. When Ellen moves in with her art teacher, Julia, and her husband, Roy, she says, "I had no idea people could live like that" [p. 47]. What way of life is she commenting upon? Does Ellen approve or disapprove?

Chapter 9

  1. Why do Julia, Roy, and Ellen have to go to court?

  2. How does Ellen's "mama's mama" compare to her "new mama"?

Chapter 10

  1. What does Ellen's description of her household tell you about her mama's background and her mama's mama's personality?

  2. What does the story of Mavis and her family further reveal about Ellen's attitudes toward race? Toward family?

  3. Why does Ellen's mama's mama slap her [p. 69] at the news of the death of Ellen's father?

Chapter 11

  1. What system did Ellen's mama's mama set up to keep track of her grandchild?

  2. What reasons does Ellen's mama's mama give for treating her own granddaughter so abusively?

  3. When her grandmother dies, Ellen says, "The score is two to one now" [p. 80]. What does she mean?

Chapter 12

  1. Ellen describes the daily routine at her new mama's. What does this description say about the household and its inhabitants?

  2. What new understandings has Ellen come to about Starletta? How do you see this process of transformation?

  3. Why does Ellen rename herself and where does the name come from?

Chapter 13

  1. What is it that Ellen finds out by spying on Mavis and her family?

  2. Why is it so important to Ellen that Starletta visit her for the weekend? Why is it also important that everyone in school, especially Dora, find out about it?

Chapter 14

  1. What does the Christmas scene reveal about Dora and Nadine?

  2. Why does Ellen say, "And all I wonder is why I do not hate Starletta" [p. 110].

Chapter 15

  1. How well does Ellen carry out her plan to get a new mama?

  2. What does Ellen have to "straighten out" [p. 121] with Starletta?

  3. On pages 125 and 126, Ellen seems to come to two very major philosophical conclusions. What are they?

Exploring the text


  1. Some of the words or phrases Ellen and other characters use, such as "colored," "nigger," and "white trash," while rooted in the book's locale and its characters' social and economic class, are blatantly offensive. To what purpose do you think Kaye Gibbons nonetheless included this language in Ellen Foster?

  2. Colloquial writing approximates the sound of speech; such writing is by nature informal. What examples of colloquialisms can you find throughout Ellen Foster? What do you think the use of words like "his/her/my own self" [pp. 2, 8, etc.]; "folks" [pp. 6, 16, etc.]; "dingleballs" [p. 5]; "what-nots" [p. 41]; "chewed their cud" and "so-and-so" [p. 75] contribute to the narration? What do they reveal about the narrator?

  3. Ellen's narration is rich with metaphors as well as idiomatic phrases and turns of speech. This sort of vernacular writing is directly connected to the language of a country or region, as opposed to more formal, less regionalized "literary" language. What are some examples of vernacular writing in Ellen Foster? What does Ellen mean when she says "The preacher . . . goes straight to the green valleys and the streets of silver and gold"? [p. 20]; "I have not seen hide nor hair" [p. 32]; ". . . you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been crumbly old brick?" [p. 56]; " . . . her mind was still wound up tight as a tick" [p. 77]; "It is the kind of dress that decorates you in the front and back both" [p. 98]? What examples of vernacular writing can you find? How do vernacular and colloquial writing differ from each other? How do they complement each other? What affect does each technique have on the reader?

  4. Two of the primary metaphors that recur throughout the novel are the magician and the microscope. What do you think they each symbolize?

  5. In writing Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons made very deliberate punctuation choices: for example, there are no quotation marks for attribution of speech. Look at passages like the ones on pages 32; 47 and 48; or 112. How do you know who is speaking? Are we listening only to Ellen, or listening in on a private conversation? How does the author's decision not to use quotation marks affect the reading experience?

  6. Throughout the book, there are references to what Ellen is reading at home because she "can hardly tolerate the stories we read for school." Why does she feel this way about the books that are assigned to her at school? Which literary references can you identify?


  1. Despite the fact that Ellen is the sole narrator of her book, Kaye Gibbons creates a world of characters who are powerful presences in Ellen Foster. What are the strongest descriptions Ellen gives of her "daddy"? What impression do you get when she calls him things like "big wind-up toy of a man" [p. 3]? How would you contrast Ellen's mama, who had "romantic fever" [p. 3], with her new mama, who's "healthy as a horse" [p. 119]? What other details about each mother's character can you find? Is Ellen's grandmother, with her "churning hate" [p. 21] and who acts "touched" [p. 65], a woman to be feared or pitied? What examples support either view? Ellen hotly tells her aunt Nadine and cousin Dora: "You two are bumping around in this house lost and foolish over each other" [p. 114]. How does that sentence sum up their characters and their relationship?

  2. In telling the events of her life story, Ellen reveals quite a bit about her own character and her own value system. She is a person who is inclined to keep "lists," primarily of things to share with Starletta, or make a project out of reading "everything of some count." Why do you think she does these things?

  3. Ellen is also a person who is very concerned with order. In her room at the new mama's "everything matches" [p. 5]; she "will not color with a broke crayon" [p. 31] and tapes together all Starletta's crayon pieces "like they are supposed to be" [p. 31]; she wishes autumn leaves were "fall-colored at the same time" [p. 16]; and primly sits up front in the bus because ". . . this is a ride to school, not a circus" [p. 83]. What do you think is the source of this need for order and what light does it shed on the personality of the narrator? What other examples can you find? How does this character trait contribute to the resolution of the story?

  4. Another of Ellen's principal characteristics is her self-awareness and her desire to create a good life for herself. How does Ellen's visit to the school psychologist [pp. 86-89] demonstrate this? Was she actually able to carry through on statements like " . . . I decided if I quit wasting time I could be as happy as anybody else in the future . . ." [p. 95]? What happens when reality ("There is no Santa Claus" [p. 107]) jars with what Ellen wishes were true? [See page 109.] What do declarations like "I do not control the clouds or the thunder" [p. 7] tell you about Ellen's understanding of her self or her place in the world?

  5. The issue of privacy is very important to Ellen, and even though she seems to spend an enormous amount of time alone, she still feels the absence of privacy keenly. For example, when she has to blow out the candles on her birthday cake, she says, "I wished I could make the wish later when I could think to myself" [p. 51]. What other examples of Ellen's desire to be alone at critical times can you find? What does this contribute to the picture you get of Ellen? Do you think this is unusual for a child of her age?

Point of View and Voice

  1. Ellen Foster is a first-person narrative, told from Ellen's own point of view. However, Kaye Gibbons, as the author, is also expressing a point of view both about Ellen and about the events her heroine describes. Look at the paragraph on page 3 that begins with "She could not help getting sick but nobody made her marry him." What is Ellen trying to tell us about her mother's condition? What is the author saying about Ellen? In describing Starletta's parents, Ellen states, "People say they do not try to be white" [p. 29]. What point is the author making beyond what the narrator is saying? Do narrator and author share the same views? How would you compare Ellen's level of awareness with the author's in the passage about the school psychologist [pp. 86-89]? Discuss other examples of how the author's point of view is expressed.

  2. Throughout Ellen Foster, there are shifts in tone and in voice. Look at the passages that begin with "Close the cover. Close it down" [p. 21]; or "Go ahead and look said the magician. I do not want to look" [p. 70]. How do these passages differ from the rest of the text? What affect do they achieve?


  1. Racial relationships and attitudes are a major theme in Ellen Foster. How would you characterize Ellen's attitudes toward race in terms of Starletta and her family? Of Mavis and her family? Of her father's drinking buddies? What causes changes in Ellen's consciousness about race and prejudice? Why is Starletta's weekend visit so significant? Do you think the author is saying that Ellen is now a person without prejudice?

  2. Another of the major themes of Ellen Foster is how much responsibility or control individuals have over their own lives. The Ellen who says "And how the Lord moves is his business" [p. 7] is the same Ellen who also says ". . . I think I am somebody now because I said by damn this is how it is going to be. . ." [p. 95]. How do these two statements reflect the question of responsibility and control? How does this theme relate to the deaths of Ellen's mother and grandmother? What are other examples of the development of this theme throughout the book? How is this theme manifested in the actions or descriptions of other characters in the book?

  3. Another parallel theme is the idea of personal choice. What does Ellen's experience living with Julia and Roy ("I had no idea people could live like that" [p. 47]) reveal about Ellen's own ideas of what choices are possible? Do her ideas change over the course of Ellen Foster?

  4. Money and the good and bad effects of having it or not having it are a recurring issue in Ellen Foster. Ellen baldly states, "All I really cared about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle" [p. 61]. In the book, economic status is often integrated into character descriptions or included in the rationale for their actions. Use examples from the text to sum up the book's depiction of money as a force in people's lives.

Extending the text

  1. After reading Ellen Foster, you may want to ask students to reread Ralph Waldo Emerson's inscription to "Self-Reliance" on page ix and discuss students' understanding both of the inscription and its relation to the text. Then ask students to come up with other literary quotes, phrases, or inscriptions that would also make suitable epigraphs for Ellen Foster.

  2. To reinforce the difference between autobiography and first-person narrative, have students keep a journal. On each two-page spread, one page should be devoted to a traditional "diary"-like personal account; the other page to a creative, first-person narrative.

  3. Ellen tells the librarian she wants "to read everything of some count." Ask students to create their own reading lists of books that are "of some count" to them. Students' list could include books that they have read as well as books they would like to read and the reasons for these choices. If several students include the same books on their lists, you may want to set up "book groups," in which a small group of students read (or reread) and discuss the book they all share an interest in.

  4. In Ellen Foster, as in many other books, plays or films that use first-person narrative, the telling of events and the description of the story's characters come from one source: the narrator. Ask students to choose another character from the book and write a first-person narrative from that character's point of view. You may also want to ask students to work in groups, using their individual narratives, to put together a presentation or reading.

  5. One of the difficulties an author faces in writing a book like Ellen Foster is that it is hard to capture the voice of a child character. An adult writer brings an accumulation of experience and learning to the craft of writing, which may affect the authenticity of a child character's ideas and language. Have students write a critical review of Ellen Foster discussing how well Kaye Gibbons achieves this aim, giving specific examples.

  6. Colloquialisms and vernacular language are essential parts of the narrative in Ellen Foster. Ask students to write a self-contained passage or story, using their own informal language. You might point out that a reader may be unfamiliar with slang or regional expressions, so that it is important for the students as writers to consider including context clues if the meaning of their narrative will be obscured by informal language.

  7. Ellen, at eleven years old, is a strong and memorable character. Ask students to write a profile of Ellen Foster as an adult. Discuss what characteristics from the book they used as a basis for their predictions of her adult character.

This teacher's guide was written by Sheila Keenan, who is a former editorial supervisor of the Instructional Publishing Group at Scholastic, Inc. She has also taught secondary-school English in Boston.

Copyright © 1994 by VINTAGE BOOKS

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