Ellen Foster takes place in a small segregated town in the South. Ellen, the main character and narrator, travels between numerous homes during the story. She first lives with her father and her mother, and then she moves in with her art teacher. Ellen then moved in with her grandmother, then with her aunt and cousin and finally with her new Mama. Although various major events, traumatic to an eleven year old, take place, Ellen tells the story as though everything is normal. .
Ellen starts the story by giving us some background of when she was little and letting us know right from the beginning how much she hated her father. She tells of one night when her father came home one morning hung over, and not able to remember what happened the night before. Ellen goes to hide from him and gets in the bed next to her mother. Despite the fact that her mother is dead, Ellen continues to lie beside her. The story then moves ahead a year or two and Ellen is living with her new family and is riding the pony. The scene then switches back to her mother's funeral with Ellen's Aunt Nadine and cousin Dora. At the funeral Ellen's mama's mama (grandmother) calls her dad a bastard and storms out. Ellen goes on to join the girl scouts and earn practically all of the badges. Christmas time rolls around and Ellen goes shopping with Starletta and her father and buys herself some things. .
Once again Ellen switches back to her new house where she is having fun riding the pony and helping her new Mama garden. Back living with her father, New Year's Eve rolls around and Ellen's father brings home a bunch of colored men. She runs to Starletta's and spends the night at her house. The next morning she calls her Aunt to see if she can stay with her. Ellen stays at her Aunt's for weekend where she goes shopping and is pampered only to return home where she locks herself in her room. On the first day of school Ellen's art teacher, Julia, notices a bruise on her arm and decides Ellen should come live with her and her husband.