Commitment and the battle between good and evil are recurring themes in the story. The characters, though they struggle at times, commit to their jobs, to each other, and to the community. It is this commitment that teaches Hope the lessons she needs to learn, and provides the security she desires. Hope's relationship with G. T. is "good," but she battles internally with self-doubts (evil) in the face of difficulties over which she has no control. In the political plot line, this same battle between good and evil is fought. Bauer avoids an ending that is too pat by first allowing the "bad guy" to win the election. In the end, good does triumph, but not without challenging the courage and fortitude of the "good guys."
The major themes are primarily developed through the main character, Hope, and her relationships with the other characters in the novel. The repeated references to a sense of hope throughout the story set the emotional tone of the novel and describe the personalities of Bauer's characters.
At birth, Hope's mother abandons her. Aunt Addie steps in to raise Hope with a no-nonsense approach that teaches Hope to stare down "hard truth." "If I lie to you now it's only going to make things worse later on," she explains. Her honesty and straightforwardness provide a sense of stability in Hope's nomadic life because "Addie always keeps her promises."
But Addie cannot protect Hope from everything. Hope struggles to adjust with each new move. "I hate leaving places I love," she says. Hope gathers her courage and builds her expectation that the next place will be THE place where she will find the security she seeks. "I'm the toughest female you've ever seen," she declares.
Deena, Hope's mother, is a constant "nonconstant" in Hope's life. She rarely visits, but she did leave Hope with two things, "her gift of waitressing" and a name Hope hates. At the age of twelve, Hope changes her name from Tulip to Hope. She chooses this name because "hope is just about the best thing a person can have." From the graffiti she leaves in every home she inhabits, to the sandwiches she names to entice customers, to the life creed she develops, hope remains the predominate attitude exhibited by this young heroine. She dreams of one day finding her real father, of establishing a permanent relationship with her mother, and settling into a real home with traditional family relationships. But much of Hope's optimism is based on fantasy. She maintains a "Dads" section in her scrapbook in which she collects magazine pictures of how her ideal father would look. There is also a "Best of Mom Book," where bits of advice and the occasional birthday card from her mother are saved. But as Hope and her Aunt Addie settle in Mulhoney, the people there replace Hope's fragile dreams with a realness she could never have imagined.
Braverman, the young cook, becomes an attraction that cannot be ignored. He and Hope work together on G. T.'s campaign for mayor and share long hours at the diner. From Braverman, Hope learns that courage is often the most difficult thing a person can demonstrate. He also teaches her the healing power of laughter as she struggles to overcome the pain of her mother's abandonment.
G. T., the owner of the diner, is stricken with cancer, but his commitment to making things better in Mulhoney leads him to run for mayor against the corrupt system established by Eli Millstone. Battling his illness and the escalating threats posed by his opponent, G. T. provides a...
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role model who "has the courage to face anything in this world and come out ahead." As her relationship with G. T. strengthens, Hope's fantasies of ideal dads dissipate. She discovers that G. T., more than anyone else in her life, understands her and the importance of time together. When he marries her Aunt Addie and offers to adopt Hope, Hope discovers she no longer needs the glossy pictures of dads in her scrapbook.
When her mother breezes into her life one last time, Hope's hurts and anger threaten to overcome her resolve to remain optimistic. "I wish like anything my mom would treat me as well as she treats her customers. Ask me what I need." With the help of G. T.'s advice, her friend Braverman's humor, and Addie's support, Hope discovers the courage to finally stand up for herself, and in so doing, frees herself at last of the burden of anger she has carried. In accepting the truth about her relationships and then surviving the devastation of G. T.'s death, Hope gains a sense of true confidence that even a little good can erase a lifetime of bad.
While the story deals with dark issues such as abandonment, corruption, and death, the focus is on the positive benefits of hard work, community involvement, commitment, and faith. Through her main characters, Bauer offers a valid set of "Rules to Live By": "be prepared"; "have hope"; "life is a test"; and sometimes, "you have to take a stand." The teenage characters are not lazy, wasteful, or ungrateful, but neither are they perfect. They serve as realistic and positive role models for young people today and deliver a clear and hopeful message to young readers.