After six intervening novels (Divining Women, 2004, etc.), Gibbons returns to the eponymous heroine of her first, Ellen Foster (1987), still plucky and brilliant but no longer beset by hard luck.
The year is 1974, Ellen, 15 and about to start ninth grade, writes a letter to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, proposing that she skip high school and head straight there. Although her best friends remain Starletta and the devoted goofball Stuart, Ellen knows she has intellectually outgrown her small southern town. Having been orphaned, lost her grandmother and been thrown out of her Aunt Nadine’s house, Ellen now lives with a stable, loving foster mother, Laura. Ellen helps rid Laura of her other, more troublesome foster children by snitching to their social worker about delinquent behavior. Laura then convinces the social worker that she’s up to the challenge of nurturing Ellen’s fabulous IQ, and adopts her. Ellen’s teachers turn a blind eye when she sells poetry homework assignments to her semi-literate classmates to earn the entrance fee to an enrichment course at Johns Hopkins; naturally, she shows up hoity-toity fellow geniuses. Meanwhile, thanks to a note from Derek Bok asking him to check on Ellen, a local Harvard-educated lawyer discovers that he’s been duped by the scheming Aunt Nadine. She has forced Ellen’s cousin Dora to sign legal papers as if she were Ellen. In fact, Ellen has an inheritance coming. Nadine and the pregnant Dora leave town, but first Dora gives Ellen the box Ellen’s mother’s left for her. Ellen finds hospital records that tell the sad story of her mother’s physical and emotional heartbreak. Ever-resilient Ellen shares her material good fortune with her friends. Then Bok writes Ellen, inviting her to attend summer school and guaranteeing her a place at Harvard in the class of 1981—on full scholarship, of course.
Ellen’s fortune has improved, but her charm has curdled into self-congratulatory superiority.