Ellen Foster narrates a story based on her experience as an eleven-year-old girl who loses both parents. This begins a series of trial and error through the court in finding Ellen a place to call home. Eventually, through a chain of constant moves from house to house and continual hardships, Ellen is pushed into adulthood at a very early age. She begins to care for herself as opposed to being cared for. Her only source of stability is her black friend, Starletta. There is irony in the parallels between Ellen and Starletta, and how they are treated so similarly. Ellen experiences prejudice as an "orphaned" child, and Starletta experiences prejudice as a black girl in the deep south.
After her mother dies, Ellen seeks protection from a drunken father who physically and sexually abuses her. Starletta and her parents, underprivileged blacks living in a dingy one-room house without an indoor bathroom, take in this "orphaned" white girl. Ellen initially displayed extreme prejudice towards this family due to her age and lack of understanding in a prejudice society. Starletta and her family accepted Ellen unconditionally, and although they couldn't offer her monetary goods they were able to offer her the one thing that she didn't have, acceptance and love. .
Ellen spent her first Christmas after her mother's death with Starletta and her family. They invited Ellen to their home for Christmas dinner, and she had a difficult time accepting their family due to their color. Starletta's mother made a sweater for Ellen and gave it to her as a Christmas gift. She was fearful that when she opened the gift she would receive a black person's sweater. .
During Christmas dinner Ellen would not eat the biscuits because they were "colored biscuits." Starletta's family had gone out of their way to create a special Christmas for Ellen, and in return she discriminated against them in refusing to eat the food they had prepared.