Form and Content
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.
The Great Gilly Hopkins takes place in the 1970s. When the book opens, Gilly Hopkins is on her way to Maime Trotter's, her third foster home in three years. Trotter's potbellied old house—located in Thompson Park, Maryland, a fictional suburb of Washington, D.C.— resembles its owner. Gilly's snap judgment of the house influences her initial reaction to Trotter. Coming from another foster home that was larger, more efficiently run, and more tastefully decorated, Gilly finds the worn furniture and drab colors depressing.
Later in the story, Gilly is forced to leave Trotter's and is sent to live with her grandmother, Nonnie, in Jackson, Virginia, a rural town west of Washington. Here she rejects her mother's old room because it is too pink and frilly; instead, she chooses a room that once belonged to her mother's brother, a pilot who died in Vietnam. At Nonnie's, too, Gilly confronts her feelings about her real family and learns the extent of her mother's irresponsibility and apparent inability to love.
Readers are drawn to The Great Gilly Hopkins largely because of Paterson's complex characterization, dramatic action, original imagery, and literary allusion . She establishes the pace and tone in the opening scene, where Gilly sits in the back seat of Miss Ellis's car, blowing a large bubble and listening to her social worker discuss a former guardian who has been hospitalized because of bad nerves. The bubble explodes. Miss Ellis flinches, and Gilly tries to pick bits of gum from her face and hair. The casual way the bubble explodes on Gilly foreshadows other events that backfire. Asked to get rid of the gum, Gilly maliciously spreads it under the car-door handle. This incident draws the reader into the story, providing background...
(The entire section is 1,596 words.)