Books my mother left me: 'Ellen Foster' and 'Durable Goods'
After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover of each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read them books my mother left me. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
If you are an avid reader, you know that there are some books you read and love, but will never read again. Right when you finish that last page, you think “Brilliant. But never again.” That precise sentiment emerged when I finished reading “Ellen Foster.” Usually after reading the books my mother left me, I like to coerce her into discussing the book for at least an hour. But I didn’t want to talk about “Ellen Foster.” I wanted to sit with what I felt. I wasn’t intending to think about it much longer, nor did I see myself rereading it in the near future.
So I was shocked when I began Elizabeth Berg’s “Durable Goods” two weeks later. It was eerily similar to “Ellen Foster”: both are narrated by a young girl whose mother has died, leaving them with an unstable abusive father, which prompts them to run away. What was most peculiar was the characteristic voice of the narrators. It was almost as if Ellen Foster herself was telling the story of Katie Nash in “Durable Goods.” The frank, colloquial language employed by each girl made “Durable Goods” give me déjà vu.
“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy” is how the novel starts. It is based on Kaye Gibbons own nightmarish childhood. She shares these memories through the young orphan girl Ellen Foster using a dual narrative: In the first narrative we see Ellen in present time, living in her beloved foster home; in the second narrative, Ellen takes us back to the past to tell her story. Her unforgettable beginning line is quickly understandable: After Ellen’s mother commits suicide by overdosing on medication, she faces physical, psychological and sexual abuse from her alcoholic father. His habits force Ellen to take care of the bills, shop for groceries and cook for herself at 11 years old. Until she can find a new home to move into, Ellen seeks refuge at her friend Starletta’s house.
After Ellen attends school with bruises on her arms, her art teacher takes her in. She lives with the teacher until her grandmother battles for custody and Ellen is forced to live with the cruel old woman. It’s when she moves in with her grandmother that Ellen discovers her father has died. Her grandmother orders Ellen to work in the fields with her Black servants for the summer. Meanwhile, her grandmother routinely blames Ellen for her mother’s death and insists that Ellen is a mirror image of her father. She justifies her treatment of Ellen by stating she is getting revenge on Ellen’s father by torturing her. Before the summer is over, her grandmother dies. Ellen is sent to live with her Aunt Nadine. This living arrangement does not last long either, and her aunt orders Ellen out of the house on Christmas day. Ellen walks across town to the foster lady’s door. She is taken in and the dual narrative here comes to a pause. Ellen is living in the present now.
Throughout all her trials, Ellen had a constant friend in Starletta. From the start of the book, Ellen had a conviction of herself being superior over her friend because Starletta is Black. Ellen harbors the racial biases and falsehoods taught to her, though she does not understand them. One of the major elements in the novel is Ellen’s recognition of her own racism and her evaluation of the values taught to her. When Ellen is finally moved into the foster home, she invites Starletta to stay with her. It is then Ellen admits to Starletta that “when I thought about you, I always felt glad for myself. And now I don’t know why. I really don’t.”
The transformation is initiated with the death of her mother, and ends with her cherished “new mama” in the foster home. While inspired by Gibbons’s experiences, the novel is dedicated to revealing inherited prejudices and the traditional values of the South. Throughout the course of the novel, we see a metamorphosis of Ellen through her changing opinions of race and evolving sense of identity. The novel ends with her and Starletta lying next to each other. The last two lines highlight Ellen’s transformation, and are as unforgettable as the first: “And all this time I thought I had the hardest row to hoe. That will always amaze me.”
The first line of “Durable Goods” is not nearly as shocking: “Well, I have broken the toilet.” But, like the line in “Ellen Foster,” it does establish the main character Katie’s fear of her father. Katie swiftly hides under her bed after this, and hears her father come up the stairs. After seeing the toilet, he blames her older sister, Diane, and Katie listens to him beat her.
Like “Ellen Foster,” this novel was also based on author’s, Elizabeth Berg’s, childhood. More precisely, it stems from her growing up terrified of her father who was an officer in the U.S. Army. Katie, 12, is left with her sister and her father, also an officer, living on an Army base in Texas following the death of Katie’s mother who passed away from cancer. Her father physically abuses his daughters, and Katie and Diane’s fear of him is authentic and terrifying to witness. Katie, unlike Ellen, does not wish for her father to be dead. While her older sister Diane rebels against their father, Katie is meekly obedient. I believe it stems from her memories of her mother, who could always temper her father’s violence. The absence of her mother is increasingly noticeable for Katie in this hostile environment. She recollects moments with her mother through flashbacks within her narrative and offers a picturesque description of her mother. Her love for her mother was clear in these memories, and it was not diminished by the loss. When Katie hides from her father under her bed she dreams of her mother, using her imagination to distract from her reality.
Her relationship with her mother is explored throughout the book, and aids the transformation Katie undergoes as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her and the fact that while her mother could circumvent her father’s treatment, she could never protect Katie from it: “He never hit my mother. She was the place where he put his tenderness. And I knew she loved him in a way that was huge, but also that she was afraid of him. Otherwise, she would not have laughed when she was being most serious with him. And she would have stopped him sometimes, like when he lunged up at us at the dinner table.”
Her evolution was a stark reminder of Ellen Foster, but besides the blatant connection, Katie’s story drastically differs from “Ellen Foster” in that Katie otherwise lives an ordinary life. She spends time at the pool, is an avid reader and does makeovers with her best friend Cherylanne. She is accustomed to her father’s habits, and appears to have accepted it as normal. Unlike Ellen, who was upfront with her hatred, Katie subdued her feelings.
Katie’s sister, though, is unable and unwilling to deal with her father and decides to run away. Before she can think, Katie goes with her, but she doesn’t make it halfway when she decides to go back home. Alone with her father, Katie must learn how to negotiate with him and seek care from others and within herself. The genuine sentiments Katie reveals in her thought process through her grievous journey are compelling. In the words of Berg, “the book is fiction, but many of the emotions in it are true.”
That’s one of the major differences I could pinpoint — Katie’s story was more vivid in emotion and evocative in expression than Ellen’s. Berg made Katie a poet, and the act of having Katie express her pain made her declarations of it more subjective. Katie would disguise her misery in metaphors. It made her story easier to read than Ellen’s. Ellen’s story was traumatizing to read, because Ellen was brutally frank about everything. She stated her troubles for what they were. I believe this difference is mainly rooted in the different styles of writing. Where Berg insinuates with her figurative language, Gibbons examines with her directness.
“Durable Goods” was left to me after my mother saw Elizabeth Berg on a book tour. My mother, plainly speaking, loved the novel and was a fan of Berg’s other work, too. The reason she left me “Ellen Foster” was more personal. “Ellen Foster” was left to me along with the memory of my grandmother. Similar to Ellen, my grandmother was also a foster child desperate to find a home to take her in. Like Ellen, she was old enough to understand the rejection from families who simply did not want her. As Ellen’s aunt ordered her out, my grandmother was given up. Ellen dealt with the torture from her grandmother, who blamed Ellen for her mother’s death, and my grandmother faced rejection from members of her adoptive family’s extended relatives.
While “Durable Goods” wasn’t left to me with the same intent, unsurprisingly there was a passage that reminded me of Ellen Foster and consequently of my grandmother: “You have to hold it in, hold it in, stare out the car windows at the cows in the fields and the endless telephone poles and the hopeful buildings in the small towns you pass through and you have to hold it in. Later, in the luxury of aloneness, you can call back the sadness to let it out. But sometimes it has gone somewhere. You have not lost it, just the ability to get rid of it by crying. It will be a part of you now, steal up on you at unexpected moments … That is how sadness is, insisting on a place inside you, but never quite cooperating.”
The sadness of losing my grandmother eats away at me how Katie describes in the above quote. It emerges with discomfort and an inexplicable ache pitted in my stomach. I had to sit with “Ellen Foster” to deal with that unexpected surge of sadness. I sank into its stupor after reading “Durable Goods,” and I float in it now.