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The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster    by Kaye Gibbons order for
Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster
by Kaye Gibbons
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Daninhirsch

Kaye Gibbons burst on to the literary scene almost twenty years ago with her now classic first novel, Ellen Foster. That book captured the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who chose it as an Oprah Book Club selection. With seven previous novels under her belt, Gibbons has written the next chapter in Ellen Foster's turbulent life, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster.

In the first novel, Ellen is orphaned at the tender age of eleven, having had to endure a sick mother and an alcoholic father. After being shuffled around to uncaring family members and foster families, she finally ends up in a loving home, with Laura as her mother figure, mentor, and advocate. In this installment, Laura helps Ellen tackle unresolved issues to do with her late mother's sister.

Ellen is blessed with intelligence and overcomes remarkable obstacles, despite low expectations for someone in her circumstances. The book's opening scene is a letter from Ellen to Harvard, requesting early admission. In a sense this is a story of survival and perseverance, though the ending is wrapped up a little too neatly.

The language, written in the southern vernacular from the perspective of a now teenage Ellen, is a little difficult to follow, with stream of consciousness writing and many run-on sentences, but the voice is authentic and is distinctly characteristic of the Ellen Foster we met in the previous book. Though not as good as the first installment in the saga, this sequel will appeal to Kaye Gibbons fans.

2nd review by Rheta Van Winkle

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster continues the story of a girl who becomes a foster child after both of her parents die. Ellen tells her tale in a vernacular which may be normal speech in rural North Carolina, but which takes some getting used to. Besides her strange way of talking, she intersperses the dialogue with even stranger colloquialisms that don't always make sense.

The book begins with a letter that Ellen writes to the president of Harvard, asking him to admit her at age fifteen, so she can go to school with people who really enjoy learning, rather than with her clueless high school friends. In the letter she displays a good vocabulary. She also says such things as that she's 'an individual who wouldn't be disdone by the large experience of leaving my road to go learn amid ten thousand or so older strangers,' which might be normal speech in her part of North Carolina but certainly isn't in my part of Virginia. Before reading too many more pages, however, I learn that this is just Ellen's way of expressing herself. For the most part I can cheerfully continue reading along until I come to another odd expression that slows me down.

Since I didn't read Ellen Foster, the first book in the series, the early part of this sequel involved a lot of catching up on Ellen's story. I didn't know what had happened to her real family, other than that they were 'either dead or crazy.' She does tell about the problems her foster mother Laura has in getting the government to give her parental rights and how insecure that makes Ellen feel. Finally, after the first few chapters of back and forthing between Ellen's recent past and her present predicament, the story takes off and flows fairly smoothly to its conclusion.

Here is Ellen in her own words. 'Watch me walk. I carry my hands to the sides. I don't lurch or slope. There's not a hunchback dome on my back. I can walk rested in the shoulders and loose armed, or I can walk with dignity, like a queen. After three years here, it's only loose ends left to manage, but when the list of things you have left to do on yourself includes items such as healing from terror that comes and goes and frequently gets in your way, it looks like the large job of work it still is.'

By the time I finished this book, I was off to the library, one of Ellen's favorite places, to check out Ellen Foster and tie up the loose ends that remained in my knowledge of her and her family. It is a strange and curiously delightful story. In the end, Ellen's unusual way of speaking is endearing and makes the book a pleasure to read.

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