A short first novel told in the laconic and telegraph-style voice of an 11-year-old girl down South. Ellen Foster is a kind of Huck Finn, smarter than her years and with wit and resilience in plentiful measure, whose orphan adventures lead her, at last, to a happy home. The story opens with the death of her kind but dragged-into-poverty-and-despair mother, an event that leaves Ellen alone with her father, who, like Huck's Pap, is a piece of mean, worthless, lecherous, drunken white trash. Ellen hides from him as best she can, but finally has to run away from home to escape his half-crazed sexual advances. Ellen's fate then is to live for a time with her rich but snake-mean grandmother, who takes out on Ellen the hatred she feels for Ellen's ne'er-do-well father--who in turn does the decent thing by dying (and, like Huck's dad, does it offstage). Ellen's grandmother herself is the next to go (of flu), after which Ellen is handed on to a hypocritical and shallow aunt (and her ditto daughter), who so enrage Ellen (and give her so little love) that she once again flees, this time to the home for girls run by her ""new mama,"" where she at last finds the stability and love (and cleanliness and order and honesty) she's never had before. At book's end, her old and best-loved friend Starletta--dirt poor and black--comes for a weekend; and though the occasion gives rise to a fleeting brush of platitudes about race relations, the depth of feeling Ellen has (not only for her friend, but for having a place to invite her to) is lovely, psychologically on target, and affecting. A reader may doubt that at her age, and in her poverty-driven circumstances, the unlettered Ellen could really be as worldly as she's sometimes portrayed (she names an imaginary boyfriend Nick Adams), but by and large the innocence of her wit and the tough stoicism of her voice avoid an Eloise-like coyness and ring true--and touching: ""I am not exactly a vision. But Lord I have good intentions that count."" A child's-eye tale of evil giving way to goodness--and happily far more spunky than sweet.