The Great Gilly Hopkins is a Newbery Honor book written in 1978 by Katherine Paterson, who also wrote Newbery Award winners Jacob Have I Loved and the wonderful and yet heartbreaking Bridge to Terabithia. It is interesting to note (I think it’s interesting, anyway) that my sister refused to read this book in fourth grade, even though it was recommended by her favorite teacher and even though she had loved Bridge to Terabithia, because a) the fact that Gilly was a foster child saddened her, and b) she was scared of Gilly because she seemed like a hellion.
That’s the premise of the book in a nutshell; Galadriel Hopkins, abandoned by her flower child mother, is a tough, bright, bubblegum chewing, show-no-weakness, 11-year-old hellion who has been bounced around from foster home to foster home for most of her life. Her most recent placement is in an old, brown, dust-ridden house in the care of Mrs. Maime Trotter, “a huge hippopotamus of a woman.” Mrs. Trotter, who prides herself on being able to befriend any child, has her work cut out for her when it comes to Gilly.
Gilly lies, steals, and does everything she can to alienate those around her, including writing an incredibly racist, hurtful card to her sixth grade teacher. All the while, she hopes that her mother, her beautiful mother, will come back from California and rescue her.
When she is caught stealing from the old blind man who lives next door, Gilly is made to do chores around the house to earn back the money. One of the chores is helping William Earnest, the other foster child, with his homework:
Gilly began to spend a lot of time with W.E. She discovered several things. One was that the boy was not as dumb as he looked. If you held back and didn’t press him, he could often figure out things for himself, but when you crowded him, he would choke right up, and if you laughed at him, he’d throw his hands up as if to protect his head from a blow. It finally occurred to Gilly that he really thought she would smack him every time he made a mistake.
Which was why, or course, Trotter tiptoed around the boy as though he would shatter at the least commotion, and why she was death on anyone she caught fooling with him.
But it wasn’t going to work. W.E. wasn’t a fluted antique cup in Mrs. Nevin’s china cupboard. He was a kid—a foster kid. And if he didn’t toughen up, what would happen to him when there was no Trotter to look after him? 1
So Gilly teaches him to defend himself.
Gilly’s self-made wall of defenses keep her from warming up to Trotter, W.E., and Mr. Randolph, the next-door neighbor. They form a family around her, despite her resistance:
“Want me to walk Mr. Randolph home?” she asked.
“Thank you, Miss Gilly. I would appreciate that so much.”
She took his elbow and guided him carefully down the stairs, taking care not to look back over her shoulder because the look on Trotter’s face was the one Gilly had, in some deep part of her, longed to see all her life, but not from someone like Trotter. That was not part of the plan.2
Like the characters in The Monkey’s Paw whose wishes don’t turn out the way they wanted, Gilly manages finally to summon her mother and to bring about a permanent placement for herself, but it’s not what she expected:
Gilly was crying now. She couldn’t help herself. “Trotter, it’s all wrong. Nothing turned out the way it’s supposed to.”
“How do you mean supposed to? Life ain’t supposed to be nothing, ‘cept maybe tough.”
“But I always thought that when my mother came. . .”
“My sweet baby, ain’t no one ever told you yet? I reckon I thought you had that all figured out.”
“That all that stuff about happy endings is lies. The only ending in this world is death. Now that might or might not be happy, but either way, you ain’t ready to die, are you?”
“Trotter, I’m not talking about dying. I’m talking about coming home.”
But Trotter seemed to ignore her. “Sometimes in this world things come easy, and you tend to lean back and say, ‘Well, finally, happy ending. This is the way things is supposed to be.’ Like life owed you good things.”
“And there is lots of good things, baby. Like you coming to be with us here this fall. That was a mighty good thing for me and William Earnest. But you just fool yourself if you expect good things all the time. They ain’t what’s regular—don’t nobody owe ‘em to you.” 3
This book has a hopeful message in the end, but it is a hard truth, and not one that a young reader might necessarily recognize as inspiring or optimistic. It’s certainly not the type that leaves the reader feeling particularly warm or fuzzy. To me, it’s not like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which the reader has a feeling of the rightness of things in the end. I’m a fan of happy endings, even if they are fictional. While The Great Gilly Hopkins is a good story, it’s not a book that I’m destined to keep and treasure.
Postscript: My children's literature class loved this book. In response to the question posed by the professor, Is this a hopeful book?, one woman responded that The Great Gilly Hopkins, from beginning to end, was filled with hopes--resigned, optimistic, against-all-odds hopes of every character, from the exhausted social worker and the sad, defeated grandmother, to the defiant Gilly and the loving Mrs. Trotter. Our professor read to us letters sent by young people to the author, thanking her and telling her she was the first grownup they had encountered who understood their feelings. The book is still not one of my personal favorites, but an overwhelming majority of my classmates think it is a worthwhile, heartwarming read.
1 Paterson, Katherine, The Great Gilly Hopkins, HarperTrophy, 1978, p. 99.
2ibid, p. 52.
3ibid, pp. 147-148.
Node your homework.