The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

From the very first we are Gilly’s companions in her story and we can understand enough of her attitudes and motives to make sense of her behaviour, which is not always of the best kind.

Gilly  has lived in foster homes most of her life, and is moving into a new foster home which she will share with the widowed Mrs Trotter and another foster child, William. Gilly is not a loveable orphan like Anne in Anne of Green Gables, but from the outset, many of us (without our affection for Anne diminishing one little bit) will be interested in and sympathetic towards Gilly.

A photograph of her mother, Courtney Hopkins, is Gilly’s prized possession. Her young beautiful mother has indicated on the photograph that she will always love Gilly. And Gilly puts great faith in this message. Gilly is tired of being uprooted and is determined not to form any attachments at Mrs Trotter’s. At first, she has no temptation to do so: Mrs Trotter is fat, and her home is far from clean, and William is too needy. Nor does Mr Randolph, their neighbour, a blind black man with a fondness for poetry appeal to Gilly. But, no doubt, Gilly’s prejudice against black people accounts for her initial dislike of Mr Randolph.

Gilly’s aim is to run off and join her mother, and she is prepared to steal and lie to realise it. Gilly sends a letter to her mother containing false accusations against Mrs Trotter.

While waiting for her mother to rush to the rescue, Gilly grows to like her foster mother and she also befriends William and teaches him to stand up for himself. Gilly’s feelings change for the better towards the people who surround her. Mrs Trotter, however, has had, if I remember rightly, an unwavering faith in Gilly from the beginning. She, Mrs Trotter, is one of the finest achievements in this book. Although she is religious, she is not the rather typical religious person of fiction, a bad person. Mr Randolph too is another very fine creation as is Barbara Harris, Gilly’s teacher, a black woman. (We would have liked to have seen a little more of Miss Harris.) Both people, in their very different ways, do a great deal to alter Gilly’s attitude to black people.

Gilly’s letter does not produce a mother but it does produce a grandmother who had no knowledge of Gilly. The grandmother claims Gilly. This outcome does not suit Gilly at all. Now she would prefer to stay with her foster mother, but it is too late. Her grandmother has a right to her, and Gilly cannot reverse the course of events that she herself set in train. She must leave her foster mother and live with her grandmother. She must make another adjustment to another person and another home: it is far from what she wished for herself.

Gilly does get to see her mother. She is no longer the young beautiful woman of the photograph, but a rather plump woman, resembling her own mother (Gilly’s grandmother). And Gilly learns that she has put her faith in a lie: her mother does not want to be bothered with her. All the same, Gilly apprehends that her grandmother will prove an ally, and we are confident that Gilly will adjust to her new home. A happy-sad, but realistic, ending to a thoroughly believable story.

Katherine Paterson demonstrates that fate is character and character is fate. The plot of the book is determined by the characters and their actions, and the ending is the natural conclusion of those actions. A number of the characters are memorable because they are very distinctive. More than anything they are capable of surprising us.  We may start off fearing the worst when Gilly first goes to live with Mrs Trotter but our expectations are contraried and like Gilly, though perhaps a good bit earlier, we are forced to change our attitude to Mrs Trotter.

There are good books and there are very good books. The Great Gilly Hopkins is a very good book. What is the difference between a good book and a very good book? Rather difficult to say. What is the difference between fresh bread and day-old-bread? Essentially not much but one does not make a glutton of one’s self over day-old-bread.



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