The Great Gilly Hopkins presents the core of Katherine Paterson’s ethos in Maime Trotter’s words that life is tough but it allows for the possibility of doing well at a tough job. The novel centers on self-responsibility. No matter how hard life is, no matter how unfair, it is up to the individual to make the best of the situation. In making the best of a difficult task, the task of life, the individual wins, even in defeat.
This central ethos is based on and surrounded by basic, traditional Presbyterian Christianity, not the born-again or charismatic movements, and in many ways, this context ties the story more closely to the writings for adolescents around the beginning of the twentieth century, such works as Little Women (1868-1869), by Louisa May Alcott; Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (1880; Heidi, 1884), by Johanna Spyri; Anne of Green Gables (1908), by L. M. Montgomery; and The Secret Garden (1911), by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Yet, whereas these books, although excellent, are often didactic, The Great Gilly Hopkins is not. The Christianity in Paterson’s works is kept in the background, even mocked, and the shift from an emphasis on God to self-responsibility is an important one. This is most evident in the climatic conclusion, where the protagonist Gilly tells Maime Trotter to “Go to hell” and to not “try to make a stinking Christian out of me.” Other social concerns surround the novel’s center. The family and the neighborhood are not of the lily-white, upper-middle-class variety, and the story deals with such issues as racism, nonstandard families, and handicapped or intellectually challenged individuals.
Beyond these themes is a stylistic brilliance. Paterson mixes tragedy and humor well, and the juxtaposition both highlights and softens the unflinchingly honest views. Also, the characters, including the adults, who are often treated as caricatures in adolescent fiction, are both unique and believable. As with all good fiction, they linger, like friends, long after the book is finished. In addition, Paterson’s obvious affection for both Gilly and Maime Trotter is mixed with an equally obvious concern for realistic honesty. All these qualities result in a work that young adults will readily understand.