Some young adult literature, especially that written for younger audiences, presents an adolescent protagonist who has been given an unfair life, only to resolve all the problems at the end of the book in an unrealistic, unforeshadowed way. The Great Gilly Hopkins threatens to fall into this category but avoids doing so by maintaining an honest, realistic approach and thus offering a hard, but positive ethical perspective.
The story quickly establishes the main characters. Gilly is an intelligent girl who has developed a hard shell as the result of being rejected by her family and forced to grow up while being shifted from one foster home to another. Gilly arrives at her new foster home ready to set up her emotional barriers that she has developed from past experiences. Foster mother Maime Trotter welcomes Gilly and introduces her to William Ernest, a foster child considered to be mentally slow, and her neighbor Mr. Randolph, a poor, blind, black man who shares their evening meals. Author Katherine Paterson strips Maime Trotter of the less important qualities—an education, a clean house, money—so that her more important wisdom about human relationships and self-responsibility is both obvious and acceptable to the reader.
Gilly starts school and begins her standard routine: first demonstrating how intelligent she is, then purposely failing at her work. At the same time, she continues to write to her mother, believing that someday she will return, and complains about her new foster home, prompting a visit from the welfare department. Gilly also steals money from Mr. Randolph and heads for the bus station. In the final chapter, Gilly stands in the airport with her maternal grandmother, waiting for her much anticipated meeting with her idolized mother. Since self-responsibility is at the center of the novel, it is important to note that Gilly is responsible for initiating the change in her situation, for putting herself in this position. By this time, Gilly’s qualities, both good and bad, have come out, and the reader has become sympathetic and anxious for the novel’s resolution. It is a standard progressive plot, leading to this climax—a climax that must be not only happy but also satisfying, which it is.