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the great gilly hopkins

29 december 2013

"You just fool yourself if you expect good things all the time," says a wise character at the ambivalently happy ending of The Great Gilly Hopkins. "They ain't regular" (148).

The Great Gilly Hopkins is a formulaic novel (and has doubtless influenced the course of its own formulaic tradition). Or rather, it puts the reader in a formulaic situation. We identify with the title character, an 11-year-old orphan. Bounced from foster home to foster home, Gilly Hopkins gets placed with some eccentric, marginalized folks: a fat, sentimental white Bible-reader named Trotter, a traumatized foster-brother named W.E., and an elderly black neighbor named Mr. Randolph: blind and losing some sharpness at his edges. They somehow form a family.

Usually in serious children's novels, this blending of oddments to create a new home for an atomized protagonist is conducted with whimsy and wonder. But Gilly, as an astute teacher points out to her, is angry. She lacks moral role models, but worse, she lacks an internal moral compass. She lashes out pre-emptively and invites the ill-treatment that further marginalizes her; in fact, she does so with premeditation.

And the reader still wants her to succeed, even when Gilly develops the scheme of stealing a bankroll from the blind and oblivious Mr. Randolph. Gilly wants the money so that she can run away from foster home in Maryland and join her mother in California. Wait, hadn't I said "orphan"? Gilly is as good as an orphan, as it happens. She's never really known her mother; she's an image in pictures and postcards. The power of language and images has led Gilly to imagine an unrealistic world of happiness with an ideal mother, rather than focus on carving out a qualified happiness with the imperfect people at hand. She's not the first novelistic character to be seduced by her imagination.

Paterson resists TV-movie endings. (Her most famous book is Bridge to Terabithia, which might help one guess her propensities in other books.) Gilly's unquenchable curiosity about her family of origin breaks up the first happy foster home she's ever known. But to invoke the tritest of all truisms, nothing lasts forever. Part of the reason Gilly is happy at Trotter's is that she herself is growing up. She learns responsibility, in part because the adults around her are sometimes so helpless. Once the terror of the playground, she becomes the competent guardian of a family. And immediately, she's given a new and even more challenging family to guard: one that she can't move on from quite so easily, because it's her own. Yet we know that one day she'll have to move on from that one too. The book represents more growing-up than most Young Adult novels do.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is notable for its keen historical and regional specificity. It also pulls no punches when it comes to the unpleasantness of prejudice. Gilly's time with Trotter is precisely in 1978, the novel's publication year – which puts Gilly's birth in 1967, in the Summer-of-Love San Francisco that has kept its hold on her mother into the Carter years. The novel takes place mostly in Maryland, in a mixed-race community that comes as a shock to the young, and quite racist, Gilly. She doesn't like trashy white folks; she spins far grander social origins for herself. But she really doesn't like black people: and her neighbor and her teacher are both black. Both win her respect despite how abominably Gilly sets out to treat them. It's a progressive novel about diversity, but it's not a rosy picture. Harmony is hard-earned.

Paterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. 1978. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.

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